Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri | Book Review

Whereabouts was originally written in Italian by the Bengali-American writer, Jhumpa Lahiri who also translated the book herself.  

“Solitude: it’s become my trade. (…) It’s a condition I try to perfect”.  

Written in forty-six short vignettes, Whereabouts portrays daily wanderings and inner workings of the narrator’s mind who is a solitary unnamed woman in her mid -40s working as a teacher and living in the unnamed city in Italy. 

Whereabouts is an exploration of urban solitude, alienation, loneliness, growing old, with the narrator’s beautiful ruminations and perceptive thoughts infused with a profound sense of nostalgia veiled in gentle melancholy, on the meaning of living a solitary life, inspired by the locations of daily errands. Reading Whereabouts one feels not merely like an observer of the narrator’s life, but also as if one were an integral part of her life 

Over the period of one year, we follow unnamed woman as she wanders outward from her home experiencing snapshots of daily life: going to the shop, antique fair, swimming pool, the stationery shop, the beautician’s, visiting her mother, sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s, buying a ticket just for one to see theatre spectacle, travelling by train. Reader gets a glimpse into the narrator’s childhood and family life, in particular the relationship with her parents, her late father, and her mother for whom the passage of time and solitude triggers a great deal of sadness.

The narrator is a very sensitive and astute observer of other people’s words, emotions, and gestures. She often reflects on how we cross our paths with others on our daily errands, often without exchanging any words, often just having the presence of other person as a reference point.  The narrator often thinks about people who currently frequent or might have frequented the same places that she does. 

At the restaurant, she eats alone with other people also eating alone.  At the doctor’s office, she notices a woman, who appears to be twenty years older than her, also waiting alone, with no husband, no companion to support her which makes the narrator reflect on her own future in a few decades from now on.  

While attending the conference, the narrator shares her thoughts about the man occupying the room next door at the hotel she is staying:  

“He strikes me as a man at peace, with himself but at odds with the world, the type that dwells on things too much. But his eyes are tender, tinged with sadness. I think of the melancholy in his eyes, that wanting look. (…) Without planning to, we wait for each other every morning and every evening, and for three days our tacit bond puts me obscurely at peace with the world.” 

At the swimming pool, she interacts with other people who like her also escape life’s troubles. Eight lanes in the pool and “eight different lives sharing that water at a time, never intersecting”. The narrator loves solitude of swimming. However, while in the changing room among the naked bodies of other women from all walks of life, she is also exposed to listening to the stories of suffering, sorrow, life disappointments, and complaints about these women’s husbands, children, ageing parents – this is the only space where women feel safe to share their pain without feeling judged or guilty. The narrator reflects:  

“the water in the pool isn’t so clear after all. It reeks of grief, of heartache. It’s contaminated (…). All that suffering doesn’t leak out like the water that travels into my ear (…). It burrows into my soul; it wedges itself into every nook of my body.” 

Throughout the pages of Whereabouts, the narrator attempts to locate her own place in the world, she is in the quest of an identity as well as emotional home where her body and soul can sense they belong. This book exudes some sort of yearning for a new attachment without a burden of geographical and cultural frontiers which makes Whereabouts truly universal in terms of the protagonist’s depicted emotions and thoughts. 

Whereabouts is also a meditation on the everyday life and how it makes up the vast majority of one’s memories: going to the shop, restaurant, taking a train to visit the relatives, walking on a sidewalk and so on.  

There is a very interesting depiction of the silence in the book which induce some sort of solace and calmness. That presence of aloneness on the pages of Whereabouts is very soothing for the reader.  

Whereabouts is a stunning and reflective book, a remarkable ode to a wonder of an ‘ordinary’ life. Lahiri’s writing is enchanting, subtle, delicate, and very precise; every single word has its own deserved place on the page.

In my view, Whereabouts is a profoundly life-affirming book about tranquility that solitary existence might offer in the similar way how our narrator experiences it – someone who lives a peaceful life, with no family of her own, deeply aware of her loneliness, but not burden by it. In many aspects, this book conveys universal existence, eradicating those geographical belongings and identities.

I highly recommend this book to everyone who loves gentle and thoughtful writing.  

Another book by Jhumpa Lahiri that I would highly recommend is In Other Words.

Epigraph by Italo Svevo used in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts

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