Where I Am

  • Review
By – June 26, 2023

Dana Shem-Ur’s debut nov­el is a mes­mer­iz­ing med­i­ta­tion on dis­place­ment and belong­ing in rela­tion to both places and rela­tion­ships. Reut, the sym­pa­thet­ic pro­tag­o­nist, is an Israeli expat on the cusp of mid­dle age” liv­ing with her French hus­band in Paris, where they have raised a son. She works as a lit­er­ary trans­la­tor but is pre­oc­cu­pied by her inabil­i­ty to cope with a cul­ture that remains alien to her after many years. She feels uneasy about her marriage’s lack of har­mo­ny and is some­times tempt­ed by oth­er men. Like many of us, she grap­ples with who she is and who she real­ly wants to be.

Though large­ly unevent­ful, Where I Am fea­tures ele­gant lan­guage, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly savvy por­tray­als of roman­tic rela­tion­ships and group dynam­ics, and an hon­est depic­tion of the protagonist’s strug­gle to nav­i­gate cul­tur­al codes as she trav­els through­out Europe. Though Reut has adapt­ed to life in France, she is aggra­vat­ed that after two decades her accent still betrays her for­eign­ness, and she is uncer­tain about her place in her husband’s coterie — and even his affec­tions. Her beloved son, who thought in French, loved in French, laughed in French, hurt in French,” late­ly seems a stranger to her. Reut acute­ly miss­es the lack of arti­fice in her birth­place and that Israeli spon­tane­ity, that ten­den­cy to force strangers into becom­ing friends.” The things she once derid­ed about Israeli cul­ture now warmed her soul.” Many expats can like­ly relate to the fierce grip of that kind of nostalgia.

While Fran­cophiles will have a greater appre­ci­a­tion of the book’s French cul­tur­al ref­er­ences, any­one who enjoys wry humor and depic­tions of the angst of roman­tic rela­tion­ships will be drawn to Shem-Ur’s por­tray­al of Reut and her social sphere. 

Ear­ly in the nov­el, entire chap­ters come and go dur­ing the space of a sin­gle meal — an extend­ed sequence that buzzes with comedic ener­gy, but also lays the foun­da­tion for the book’s even­tu­al sobri­ety. Lat­er sec­tions fol­low Reut and her com­pan­ions on hedo­nis­tic jour­neys to places whose exte­ri­ors mir­ror Reut’s shift­ing moods and yearn­ings. For instance, a cer­tain Ital­ian town is described as an infi­nite series of ups and downs.”

Reut‘s voca­tion as a trans­la­tor may feel inci­den­tal to the loose strands of the plot, and read­ers might wish for more glimpses into Reut’s strug­gles to ren­der the idioms and cre­ativ­i­ty of a for­eign lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion into her own lan­guage. But with that minor caveat aside, Shem’s‑Ur’s dar­ing debut is a won­der. Com­bin­ing dark com­e­dy and heartache, it is sen­su­al and exquis­ite­ly writ­ten. Yardenne Greenspan’s trans­la­tion of the Hebrew is nuanced and edgy.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

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