In Other Words

In works like her Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri has distinguished herself as much for her exquisite prose as for her storytelling skill. Her fascination with the beauty of language now has produced In Other Words, an equally affecting account, written in Italian, of her effort to master that language.

Though she studied Italian while living in the United States, with her move to Rome in 2012, Lahiri's immersion became total. From obsessively maintaining a notebook of Italian words and phrases, she haltingly progressed to the pieces (rendered in English by Elena Ferrante's translator, Ann Goldstein) that compose this brief volume. In them, she reflects on everything from the challenges of thought and expression in a foreign tongue to the mystery of creativity. "Investigating my discovery of the language," she writes, "I think I have investigated myself."

Embedded in her memoir are a pair of short stories reflecting what Lahiri says are the themes of her work: "identity, alienation, belonging." They complement the explicit effort in this book to plumb the psychological tension brought about by "the long clash in my life between English and Bengali," the latter her native language.

With the publication of In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri has returned to her teaching position at Princeton. Calling herself a "writer without a definitive language," she's uncertain of the direction her next literary effort will take. With the talent she displays here, whether future work is in English or Italian, it undoubtedly will reflect her characteristic elegance and grace. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer
[Editor's note: This is Harvey Freedenberg's 200th review for Shelf Awareness!]

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