Review: Two iconic novelists, Adichie and Lahiri, step off their pedestals

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Authors Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of "Notes on Grief" and Jhumpa Lahiri of "Whereabouts."
Authors Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of "Notes on Grief" and Jhumpa Lahiri of "Whereabouts." (Manny Jefferson / Elena Seibert)

What prompts a departure or detour in a writer’s work, a shift in subject matter, register, and language, if even for just one book? What prompts a writer to change — as a writer?

This spring, new books by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri, two of the most prominent and acclaimed writers of their generation, cover decidedly new ground in different ways and for different reasons. Adichie — known for her big, audacious novels “Half of a Yellow Sun” and “Americanah” as well as pocket-sized polemics like “We Should All Be Feminists” — turns inward in her new book, “Notes on Grief,” an extended meditation on the sudden death of her father last June.

Lahiri, meanwhile, has immersed herself in Italian over the past years; “In Other Words,” her memoir of relocating to Rome and exploring a new language, came out in 2015. And she has continued to roam farther afield from the middle-class Bengali families explored in works such as “The Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Namesake.” Her new novel, “Whereabouts,” written in Italian and translated by Lahiri herself, is a slim, sparse book, a series of essayistic vignettes examining the travails of a solitary woman on the verge of an existential breakdown.

The book cover for "Notes on Grief" shows a flower in a glass of water and a sudoku puzzle
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's memoir, "Notes on Grief," is a work of mourning for her father, who died during the pandemic. (Knopf)

“I am the Family Worrier,” Adichie reveals early on in “Notes on Grief”; during the pandemic summer of 2020, like a lot of us, she had more than enough to fret about. Her parents, who had moved back to Abba, their ancestral hometown in southeastern Nigeria, insisted all was well when their close-knit family of six children beamed in from around the world for boisterous weekly video calls. But Adichie had a sense something wasn’t quite right with her father, who seemed tired and distracted on their chat on June 9. He was planning a routine visit to the doctor in just a few days, he assured her.

He died suddenly of kidney failure the next day, at 88, and Adichie, so far from her family and unable to travel to Nigeria, utterly fell apart. This small book, intensely personal, is a new exercise in vulnerability. “It does not matter whether I want to be changed, because I am changed,” she insists. “A new voice is pushing itself out of my writing, full of the closeness I feel to death, the awareness of my own mortality, so finely threaded, so acute.”

At this stage of her career, Adichie has been widely lionized, her popularity amplified by TED talks and samples by Beyoncé. More recently, she’s been criticized for comments perceived to be transphobic. In “Notes on Grief,” by turns fierce, tender and raw, the public figure reveals a more private self.

Faced with her father’s death, Adichie’s violent reaction shocks even her: “I am unprepared for my wretched, roaring rage.” Her 4-year-old daughter is terrified by the sight of her mother “screaming and pounding the floor.” In short chapters alternating between quiet, poignant recollections and abject wailing, Adichie wrestles with the mysteries of grief. “This is an affliction not merely of the spirit but of the body, of aches and lagging strength,” she writes, describing the strange bitterness on her tongue, the “heavy, awful weight” pressing down on her chest, while “inside my body, a sensation of eternal dissolving.”

She also struggles with the tension between her need to shut herself away and the social rituals of mourning. “I want to sit alone with my grief,” she complains, even as she comes to see the therapeutic benefits of the public demands on her and her family — receiving guests, sending out cards, planning the funeral. “There is value in that Igbo way, that African way,” she writes, “of grappling with grief: the performative, expressive outward mourning, where you take every call and you tell and retell the story of what happened, where isolation is anathema.”

This is a cathartic work for Adichie, a way to keep alive the spirit of her father by telling his stories. And in her writing, he shines as a man of deep kindness and integrity, a dry wit and successful academic who was unstinting in his support of his daughter’s ambitions. “I am writing about my father in the past tense,” she catches herself, “and I cannot believe I am writing about my father in the past tense.”

The book cover for "Whereabouts" shows undulating bands of light
"Whereabouts," Jhumpa Lahiri's first novel in eight years, was written in Italian and translated by the author into English. (Knopf)

“Whereabouts,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel in eight years, is mournful in its own way, though tinged with a more muted sense of sorrow and dislocation. It signals a new mode for Lahiri as well, and an even more daring transformation. Written in the immediate present tense, “Whereabouts” consists of a middle-aged woman’s musings and encounters in an unnamed Italian city that both coddles and unnerves her. She is an academic and a loner, her life marked by missed chances, ex-lovers and imaginary affairs — and haunted still by an unhappy childhood and the death of her emotionally distant father when she was a teenager.

The seasons, with their varying shades of light, drift over the piazza, her balcony, the small cafes she frequents alone. Springtime depletes her (“depletion” is a recurring motif), reminding her “of loss, of betrayal, of disappointment.” Fall only makes her more melancholy. “There’s no escape from the shadows that mount, inexorably, in this darkening season. Nor can we escape the shadows our families cast,” she thinks. “That said, there are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.”

Gradually, a fuller self-portrait emerges of Lahiri’s restless and moody narrator, cut off from family, listless at work and unlucky in love. Chapters that read like asides or interludes provide snapshots of her daily life. She visits her favorite museum, off the beaten track and frequently empty; she swims laps at the local pool, eavesdropping on the banter of the other women in the changing room. Somehow, she remains outside everything, at a distance from colleagues and even friends. “Solitude: it’s become my trade,” she admits. “And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of knowing it so well.”

Like Adichie’s memoir, Lahiri’s novel circles around the anguish of a self turned in on itself. Also like Adichie, Lahiri’s protagonist will be forced to leave the cocoon of her familiar existence, eventually heading off on a yearlong fellowship abroad. Before she leaves, she visits her father’s grave one more time and spends a fraught afternoon with her aging mother, trying to avoid touchy subjects. She ponders again her rootlessness. “Is there any place we’re not moving through?” she wonders aloud. “Disoriented, lost, at sea, at odds, astray, adrift, bewildered, confused, severed, turned around. I spring from these terms. These words are my abode, my only foothold.”

“Notes on Grief” and “Whereabouts” provide glimpses of lives in crisis in great and small ways. Adichie’s direct, urgent voice is heated, heartbroken; Lahiri’s fictional one simmers on a low boil. Both feel true and wise to the core. “Grief is not gauzy,” Adichie writes, “it is substantial, oppressive, a thing opaque.” Lahiri’s narrator also feels aggrieved and oppressed, though indeed in a gauzier sense. “I’m flustered by this unraveling of time,” she sighs, in a chapter entitled “In My Head.” “I’m losing my grip on myself.”

Though both books grapple with loss and represent a certain amount of risk, it remains to be seen what they mean for each writer: what they’ve given up of themselves and what they’ll choose to keep. Adichie, who has already worked in a variety of forms, has channeled a deeper layer of self-expression, while Lahiri’s experiments in material and language appear to be rooted in a profound reorientation as a writer. Will she continue to write in Italian? Will her works become ever more pared down, the “whereabouts” increasingly obscured? Her legion of readers will be anxious to find out.

Tepper has written for the New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair and Air Mail, among other places.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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