“Whereabouts,” by Jhumpa Lahiri (Alfred A. Knopf)
Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri is back with what is sure to be one of the more unique “novels” of the year.
Readers can debate in book clubs whether it’s a novel in the traditional sense, but it sure is novel in the original sense. Written in Italian and then translated by the author into English, “Whereabouts” features an anonymous first-person narrator who reveals tiny slices of her life in the course of 46 very short chapters with names like “At the Station” and “On My Couch” and “In My Head.” Readers will be challenged to piece together a plot, but we do learn that she’s a single professor somewhere in Italy, her father died when she was just a teen, and by the end she’s pondering a change of scenery from the place in which she is so thoroughly immersed throughout the book.
Beyond that, there’s not much action in the story, which focuses instead on observations of every day life, both in the various spaces the narrator inhabits and her inner monologue. She has a writer’s eye for detail, capturing a garden painted onto the walls of a museum: “The trees, with their thin branches, seem to bend as if from the soft breeze that courses through the landscape. This semblance of a breeze is what makes the painted nature tremble...” She’s also keenly self-aware: “Solitude: It’s become my trade... And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well.”
Each chapter floats by quickly, and this reader had trouble making it coalesce into a satisfying whole. Still, the prose is sparse and lyrical and the journey is enjoyable, wandering through an anonymous life, seeing things through one person’s eyes. At one point the narrator becomes as voyeuristic as her readers, following a stranger on the street and asking herself, “What’s her face like? Has she always lived here, like me?... “Is she going to ring the buzzer of a friend of hers? A lover? Is she going to stop to drink some fruit juice or have a gelato?”
We never find out, of course, just as we must imagine a new life for our narrator after the final page. Some literary critics will love this novel novel even as some readers scratch their heads. Kudos to Lahiri for stretching the form and creating something that feels fresh.