Consumed by the flame: Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Whereabouts”

In Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri explores the terrain of her own mind amid a lush, formidable Italian city. The word “novel” appears below the title, but it feels more like a series of exquisitely crafted journal entries. Each chapter contains a meditation on her everyday life and analysis of relationships.

Thoughts flit from here to there: a café, where she seeks advice from her barista; a love affair with a married man; memories of a difficult childhood and aging mother; weekend trips out of town.

The book is somber in tone and I wonder if it reflects Lahiri’s point of view or is a projection of the narrator’s trauma. The narrator, presumably a version of Lahiri, admits to feeling “depleted” and “melancholy”, yet her powers of imagination are able to uncover beauty within the decay.

In one scene, alone and uneasy at the baptism of a friend’s daughter, she wanders outside to be closer to the water. Here, as in other places, there is a pull toward forces that can “consume me”.

“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.”

What reassures her — the ability of the wave to consume her pain, or her self?

As she grapples with traits both inherited and honed, the narrator must decide whether to leave behind the city she loves.

Originally written in Italian, Whereabouts was translated by the author and published in 2021. Available at Heights Libraries and OverDrive.

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