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.