You walk into a party and everything just feels…off. Your jokes don’t land, your fit’s all wrong, the rhythm of conversation never quite falls into place. Everything feels alien, and it’s lonelier than being alone.
Where I Am (June 6, New Vessel Press) Dana Shem-Ur’s debut novel offers an, elegant examination of exactly this: the minutiae of cultural codes, their subtle hypocrisies, absurdities and tensions as seen through the eyes of an outsider. Originally published by Pardes Publishing in Israel in 2021 and now released in the US in a translation by Yardenne Greenspan, it’s the story of Reut, an Israeli translator living in Paris with her French husband Jean-Claude and their son.
Shem-Ur’s own life mirrors her protagonist’s: She lived in Paris for three years and earned a master’s degree in philosophy from the École Normale Supérieure. Like Reut, she is a Ph.D. candidate—but while Reut dropped out of her doctoral program at Columbia to follow her husband to Paris, Shem-Ur studies contemporary history at Tel Aviv University. Shem-Ur is also a translator, working from French, Italian and Mandarin into Hebrew.
Shem-Ur’s passion for language shows in Reut’s observations of discrepancies between the various languages the characters speak, and how those differences reflect cultural dissonance. Her translator’s mind picks up on conversational tics that are invisible to native speakers. For instance, she’s amused by the French phrase “n’est-ce pas?” (“isn’t it?”) which she sees as a “non-question,” and “implication of the listener’s compliance;” and the use of the Russian word “vot,” which “Russians often used to seal their statements.”
Reut’s husband’s relationship with Mikhail Grigoryev, a respected Franco-Russian writer, stands as the driving force behind the novel’s action. Jean-Claude is anxious to ingratiate himself with the author, but Reut finds Jean-Claude and his friends’ fawning pretensions exhausting.
The novel spans three parts, the first of which takes place over the course of a dinner party with the couple’s affluent, intellectual friends, demarcated by the courses of the meal Jean-Claude has painstakingly planned and executed to impress his esteemed guest—plus a cigarette break. Reut is irritated by her husband and his guests, whose conversation she finds by turns vapid, aggravating and phony.
Grigoryev subsequently invites the couple to his house in southern Italy, a vacation Reut feels she should look forward to—but as it turns out, even a picturesque setting can’t free her from the feelings of alienation and irritation that plagued her at the dinner party. Shem-Ur’s rendering of social gestures and counter-gestures isn’t elaborate—there’s no editorializing, no ill-wrought metaphor, no romanticism or melodrama. Yet the story is emotionally captivating and, at times, hilarious precisely because of its laconic quality.
Shem-Ur’s meticulous, unsentimental depiction of Reut’s social life reflects a similar sensibility to the Dogme 95 filmmaking movement founded by filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier in 1995. The rules of the movement include that shooting must be done on location, that the sound must never be produced apart from the images (or vice-versa), that the camera must be hand-held and that special lighting, optical work and filters be verboten. The effect is muted, low-budget and lightly produced.
And like that movement, Shem-Ur gives her readers little more than a careful eye when following sequences of simple, everyday events. Her writing crafts a picture akin to the home video-esque quality of a handheld camera that follows closely behind characters as they talk, cook, eat, argue, work, travel and get on each other’s nerves. Rather than broaching the events from a wider view, Shem-Ur takes readers into her characters’ moments of discomfort and isolation, of ease and connection. She’s masterful at bringing us into the mind of her protagonist, too. Without spelling out her emotional reactions, Shem-Ur makes us feel Reut’s discomfort—the way it grates on her when her husband speaks for her, her desperation to be alone when the exhaustion of translating herself becomes overwhelming.
Using sharp, witty, rich and intimate language, Shem-Ur creates a pervasive and almost omnipresent mood of unease. Reut struggles to feel at home in new cultural contexts and must perpetually shoehorn herself into the roles of wife, mother, hostess, guest. As motivations go, her desire to simply exist feels relatable. Even for those of us who are monolingual, Reut’s experience of trying to translate the nuance of experience into the socially acceptable give and take of conversation becomes almost painful to consider. Where I Am speaks to the human desire simply to be understood.