A New Style of Storytelling in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Whereabouts”

With her third novel Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri makes new inroads by telling a story of urban solitude. Translated into English by Lahiri herself, the original work Dove Mi Trio is written in Italian and was published in 2018.

The NRI experience that came alive in Lahiri’s earlier novels The Namesake and The Lowlands is absent here. Whereabouts introduces us to a literature professor in her mid forties whose name remains unknown. Coupled with it is the fact that the narrative is set in the ambience of a city whose name is not mentioned either. The setting of Italy is surmised when the protagonist is addressed as Signora and when on several instances she mentions the piazza.

The story progresses sans the development of a plot. A series of meditative vignettes, each one seems more like a journal entry. Time and place are of prime importance because the narrations hinge upon these dimensions. “In Spring”, “In Winter”, “In the Piazza”, and “At the Villa” are among the 46 chapters that make up the book.

Unraveling the story

A tinge of melancholy pervades the novel as the themes of death and loneliness are diffused in the narrative. The opening chapter itself strikes a morbid tone. The narrator talks at length about a dead man she never knew after analyzing the inscriptions on a marble plaque dedicated to him. There are several other references to people who have passed away, including the wife of a chef at a restaurant, her boyfriend’s dead parents, and her own father who died unexpectedly. The obsession goes to the extent of providing graphic details of a mouse she finds dead.

The narrator lays bare her life, and we get to know about the different facets of her personality. She confesses that although she has come to a college to earn her living, her heart is not in it. She has never had a happy childhood and was caught between parents who had different temperaments. Vacations were unheard of when she was little, and she laments that her “childhood harbors few happy memories.” As an adult, she does not see herself as the ideal daughter giving her widowed mother a comforting companionship.

Solitude defines the narrator’s life, and she shares: “Solitude: it’s become my trade.” We get glimpses of her eating alone at a restaurant and buying a ticket to watch a play all by herself. She struggles however to come to terms with it and expresses that she inherits from her mother the fear of being alone. As much as loneliness does not leave her, she is not a complete recluse. Although rare, she does  socialize in instances when she attends a baptism, goes for a dinner invitation at a friend’s, has people dropping by at her place, and accompanies her friends and their children on a visit to a castle. 

We encounter a woman who keenly observes people that she comes across in her everyday life. She makes speculations about complete strangers without any solid reason to support her assumptions. On one of many such occasions, she talks about a lady she sees at the museum, analyzing what might be going on in her mind: “Maybe she’s thinking, as she sits in this stunning space, about how much she’s had to walk today, and how tired she is. Maybe she’s thinking of her house in some other part of the world.”

She has had failed romantic relationships, though not necessarily owing to any fault of hers. “Never married, but like all women I’ve had my share of married men,’ she says. There is longing in her heart, for she talks about being comforted by the gentle physical contact with a friend’s husband with whom she was romantically involved.

The narrator’s state of mind is skilfully summarized in those lines: “Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, uprooted, turned around. I’m related to these related terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold”.

A departure from Lahiri’s earlier novels, Whereabouts strikes a new note

Unlike what one experiences in Lahiri’s earlier novels, Whereabouts lacks the emotional tenderness to get invested in. There were moments when I had those fat tears rolling down as I became a part of Ashoke and Ashima Ganguly’s world in The Namesake. Again, I was totally overwhelmed to see the lives of Gauri and Subhash, entangled in a web of complexities in The Lowland. The narrator in Whereabouts does invite your curiosity, yet something goes amiss. You wonder what shape her life will take when  she boards a train to accept a fellowship in “a place [she’s] never seen before”,  but you still remain emotionally detached.

The story moves at a similar pace throughout. Without any new and interesting developments, Whereabouts definitely tests the reader’s patience at times. Yet I would recommend the book to have a taste of the author’s new strategy for storytelling which is so distinct from her earlier works. Read it to savor the treats of Lahiri’s brilliant prose, exemplified in this beautiful description of the month of August: 

“In August my neighborhood thins out: it wastes away like an old woman who was once a stunning beauty before shutting down completely

Such is the magic of Jhumpa Lahiri’s literary genius. Her mastery over words immensely succeeds in creating apt visuals in the mind’s eye and is a true testimony as to what a gifted writer she is!

1 Comment

  1. Sounds like a good book. Thank you for the synopsis, Rashmi. Maybe when I’m finished with a few books I’m reading now, this one might be something I’m interestedin.

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