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Space & Solitude: Grief In Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts
Fred Garratt-Stanley , May 15th, 2021 08:22

With the publication of Jhumpa Lahiri new novel Whereabouts, Fred Garratt-Stanley explores the role of grief in the work of the award-winning British-American writer

An unnamed narrator strolls across an unknown Italian city, interacting casually with nameless friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Images of bright dawns, bustling piazzas and solitary diners are shrouded by anonymity, creating a “portrait of a woman in a sort of urban solitude”, as Lahiri puts it. By maintaining these obscurities, Jhumpa Lahiri instils Whereabouts with a strong sense of universality, asking readers to consider the immense value of space, community, and location.

Lahiri’s third novel was originally published in Italian as Dove mi trovo, which translates as ‘Where I find myself’ or ‘Where am I?’. Pondering on such questions seems apt for Lahiri, who is deeply concerned with the collision of culture and language, in both her life and literary work. Born in London, the daughter of Bengali immigrants, she moved to the United States aged three. Frequent childhood visits to relatives in Kolkata preceded an adulthood spent between New Jersey and Rome, her experiences in the latter city prompting her to begin writing predominantly in Italian. This ingrained sense of cultural multiplicity is replicated in the author’s fiction, which spans the entire globe.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Whereabouts contains an acute interest in space and geography. Divided into a flurry of short chapters, each one named after the location in which it is set, the novel attaches great importance to the relationship between environment and individual. Sidestepping names and details (amazingly, the book contains not one proper noun), Lahiri focuses on tying buildings and places to human emotion and thought. Upon entering the hotel base of an academic convention, the narrator notes how the “entrance, with its massive lobby, swallows me up”, its imposing features and “high ceiling” rendering her insignificant. Conversely, ‘At Dinner’ portrays the comforting effects of a visit to her friend’s “charming” apartment, “a sort of playhouse, full of tight corners and dark, exposed beams”. Throughout Whereabouts, Lahiri maps out this range of buildings, homes, and architectural structures almost as characters in their own right. Romantic relationships are superficial; instead, the narrator is bonded to her city, overwhelmed by affection for everything “knotted up in the fabric of my neighbourhood… the buildings, the trees, the marble woman”.

The human connections Lahiri chooses to portray are often tinged with sadness. In ‘At the Trattoria’, we view a decaying father-daughter relationship, damaged by his infidelity. Descriptions of how “the daughter plays with her cell phone while the father attempts to speak to her, to convince her” are depressingly vivid. Similarly, the narrator resents her own late father, who died suddenly during her adolescence. “I don’t forgive you for never having stepped into those arguments, for never protecting me, for having forsaken your role as my defender”, she spits while ‘At the Crypt’. These conflicts, differences and gaps in understanding are presented as inherent to familial bonds.

The text’s interest in father-daughter relationships mirrors that of Lahiri’s previous novel, 2013’s The Lowland. A multi-generational tale straddling two continents and several decades, the book poignantly follows the fractures and losses suffered within one Indian American family, and the love that endures, nonetheless. The novel’s most touching relationship exists between Bela and her adopted father Subhash, whose devotion to her contrasts strongly with Whereabouts’ images of paternal detachment, of “a father who was never besotted with his child”. This disparity strengthens the overwhelming sense of vacancy and hollowness that dominates Lahiri’s latest novel.

Throughout Whereabouts, vain attempts are made to fill the emotional and mental voids that plague the narrator. Early on, her efforts to fill up an oppressively empty, “capacious” office bookshelf with weekly transportations of texts are futile, reflecting broader vacuums in her personal and professional life. Various trips, flings, and activities are designed to instil purpose and meaning, but afterwards such affairs are just “a momentary surge that has nothing to do with me anymore”. The narrator is constantly searching for something, in transit. Perhaps, this detail informed Lahiri’s choice of title for a novel she translated from Italian herself.

It was on a flight to Rome that the author came up with the title Whereabouts, a flexible word she describes as “incredibly English”. ‘Whereabouts’ is a noun indicating a location, but it is also an adverb, wrapped in a question: ‘Whereabouts are you?’. It’s a word inherently tied to attempts to locate something, or someone. Thus, Lahiri’s title encapsulates her narrator’s state of being, her transience, her perpetual feeling of something being missing. In the novel’s penultimate chapter, the author deconstructs her own textual foundations by abandoning the prepositions of every other chapter title, replacing ‘At the Station’, ‘In Bed’ or ‘On the Street’ with the enigmatic ‘Nowhere’. In a line which simultaneously rips up the bedrock of her script and imparts the text’s greatest truth, Lahiri writes “Because when it is all said and done the setting doesn’t matter: the space, the walls, the light. It makes no difference”. Ultimately, Whereabouts’ array of spaces and settings exist primarily to underline how her narrator belongs nowhere.

Reading Whereabouts, I was inspired by the beautiful simplicity of Lahiri’s prose, and simultaneously struck with a deep sense of melancholia. At moments of tragedy, her writing is blunt and direct; her father’s death is summarised by the sentence “Bacteria had entered his bloodstream, and in the end, instead of going to see a play with him, I sat at his wake”. This response to loss contains echoes of The Lowland, in which protagonist Subhash learns of his brother’s death through a simple telegram, reading “Udayan killed. Come back if you can”. Grief, loneliness, and family trauma shape both narratives, but the universality of Lahiri’s storytelling in her latest novel renders it particularly striking.

Whereabouts fortifies Lahiri’s status as a master of emotive narrative. Her characters are defined by a distinct awareness of their own isolation. Lines like “I’m grateful to be on my own… in spite of the silence, in spite of the lights I never switch off when I leave the house” betray our narrator’s thinly disguised fear of loneliness. Perhaps this is the most important aspect of the novel. A gruelling fourteen months of repeated lockdowns and restrictions have left everyone feeling isolated at times. Jhumpa Lahiri’s impressive ability to capture this human condition with elegance, precision, and empathy has helped her become one of the world’s most powerful modern writers. Arguably, her work is more relevant now than ever before.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri is published by Knopf