Book Review: Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

About the Book:

The new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author: a haunting portrait of a woman, her decisions, her conversations, her solitariness, in a beautiful and lonely Italian city.

The woman moves through the city, her city, on her own.

She moves along its bright pavements; she passes over its bridges, through its shops and pools and bars. She slows her pace to watch a couple fighting, to take in the sight of an old woman in a waiting room; pauses to drink her coffee in a shaded square.

Sometimes her steps take her to her grieving mother, sealed off in her own solitude. Sometimes they take her to the station, where the trains can spirit her away for a short while.

But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will change forever.

A rare work of fiction, Whereabouts – first written in Italian and then translated by the author herself – brims with the impulse to cross barriers. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement. A dazzling evocation of a city, its captures a woman standing on one of life’s thresholds, reflecting on what has been lost and facing, with equal hope and rage, what may lie ahead.

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing

Released 4th May 2021

My Thoughts:

Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of four novels and one work of non-fiction. This latest release, Whereabouts, is the first novel that she has written in Italian; she also did the English translation herself. Creatively, I find that very interesting. Fortunately for me, Jhumpa Lahiri is on the program for this year’s Melbourne Writer’s Festival with a digital session, so I’ll be purchasing a ticket for that in the hopes that she speaks about her reasons for writing in Italian this time around. This novel is illuminating and observational, so perhaps she felt she could convey the atmosphere better in Italian, particularly since most of the observations were made whilst the protagonist was wandering around an Italian city.

‘I tidy up the house and put the remaining pastries in a tin so I can savour them slowly at breakfast for the rest of the week. Then I go check on the book he’d wanted to take away. I hope the cover hasn’t been stained by jam or chocolate. Thanks goodness he hasn’t left a trace. No doubt he thought: This woman owns thousands of books and yet she’s unwilling to lend me even one. But I treasure this volume, and I doubt that he’d be able to appreciate a single word of it.’

This is one of those novels where I’d be hard pressed to tell anyone what exactly happened, yet I really enjoyed it and thought it exceptionally thought provoking. The protagonist is similar in age to me, single and childless, she has a reliable circle of friends, a nice apartment and a good job. She lost her father when she was fifteen, her memories of him are complicated, as is her relationship with her mother. She has lived in the same city all her life and knows it well. Through her wanderings, we come to know it also. The chapters are short and each one contains a different observation within a different space and context. Sometimes it is about a place, at other times it’s more intimate and about a person; occasionally we see both converge. The story is always moving forward and all the way through the novel, we get the sense that our protagonist is searching for something. It’s not that she’s unhappy or has a great void in her life; rather there is a strong sense of there being something more out there waiting for her and she just needs to step out of her comfort zone and seize it. In this, Whereabouts is a journey novel, but with a subtlety that gives way to experiencing another place rather than following a character all over it.

‘Outside, there’s a ferocious noise coming from the crashing of the waves and the roar of the wind: a perpetual agitation, a thundering boom that devours everything. I wonder why we find it so reassuring.’

I really enjoyed the way that Jhumpa Lahiri writes. There is a lyrical quality to her prose yet it’s also clean and crisp, not a word wasted. I devoured this novel in an evening and was a little sad to leave it once it ended. I felt like I could have happily kept wandering with our protagonist in a different city and then back again within her own. As a translation, it is impeccable, but I suspect that there would have been no chance of it being anything less so with the author herself, fluent in both Italian and English, doing the translation. What a talent she is to be able to write in more than one language. I wonder now if she plans on writing more of her novels in this way, Italian first and then English. Perhaps I’ll find out in the MWF session. I’ll endeavour to write about it as a follow up to this review. This one is recommended to readers who love literary novels, of the type that deep dive into a character and allow the reader a sensory and wholly atmospheric experience. It was also lovely to read some contemporary Italian fiction. I haven’t had the opportunity to read much like this, most of the Italian novels I’ve read have been historical in setting. I rarely comment on the cover of a novel but a shout out to Bloomsbury for this one, I find the cover of the Australian edition particularly appealing and restful to look at.


Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

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