In the last quarter of 2014, I left a job which was my home for over a decade. When I left, I didn’t have a practical plan in mind. I wanted to travel. I wanted to wake up with no cares or worries. Though she did not much speak much about it, my mother was against the idea. One needs a job and you just don’t resign because you are tired and unhappy. Her generation was not raised to decide in such manner. Later on she told me that she was worried about me for the bum that I might turn out to be. While I did plan to bum a bit, the plan didn’t materialize because I got a job offer to work in a community situated within the borders of Batangas and Laguna. I was offered the role of a corporate social responsibility officer in a geothermal reservation called Makban, short for the iconic Southern Tagalog mountains, Makiling and Banahaw. In a heartbeat, I left Cebu and my mother and settled in a community where I did not know anyone. My closest friends were at least two hours away.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s newest novel, Whereabouts, brought me back to Makban. Not that I have forgotten Makban since on the contrary, I find myself recalling the place more often during these months that we are in isolation and the end of the pandemic is not in sight. Whereabouts articulated my three and half years of solitude in Makban. The unnamed central character of Whereabouts is a woman in her mid-forties, single and living by herself though no stranger to relationships and flings. She teaches at a local university and lives a generally uneventful, routine life. Her father died when she was fifteen, she has no siblings, and was so safeguarded by her mother until she decided to leave the nest. In spite of the silence, she is grateful to be on her own. In spite of the guilt she sometimes feels for living apart from her aging and perhaps wasting mother, she acknowledges that this is the price she pays for dear solitude.
I first fell in love with Lahiri in early 2000s when I read Interpreter of Maladies purchased from the now defunct Cebu Thrift House (originally Music House). There is this crystalline quality in her writing enabling the reader to inhabit the space, time, and circumstance of the characters. Perhaps Maladies was a turning point in my reading life as I yearn for writing that transports me to a quiet and comforting space. A well-plotted story still excites me but a beautifully structured sentence, paragraph, or chapter is a class of its own. Once in a while I fancy myself being interviewed by let’s say Oprah and Oprah would ask me: Jessie, if you were to read only five authors for the rest of your life, who would you read. My answers would be Anne Tyler, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, Ursula Le Guin, and the fifth spot would be negotiated by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Marilynne Robinson, Haruki Murakami, Maya Angelou, and Nick Hornby. Perhaps I would negotiate with Oprah to give me spots for 10 authors instead.
Whereabouts was originally written and published in Italian in 2018. Lahiri translated her own work and the English language version was released just this year. The setting is likewise unnamed but Lahiri pictured Rome in her mind. Whereabouts is that kind of novel that evokes a strong sense of time and place. With Whereabouts, Lahiri is a chronicler of the days in a life of human beings who embrace solitude, whether this is by choice or by circumstance, whether such solitude is marked by peace or periodic bouts of longings or regret. Lahiri’s keen observations in each page of the novel illumine the calm that comes in living by our own terms, in coming to peaceful terms with the past, and in not imposing ourselves on others.