Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

I loved the entire experience of this novel. The gorgeous picture on the cover, the almost five hundred pages packed with shifting story lines, Jacob’s use of language, the themes: first generation American life, Indian immigrant communities in random locales, loss of a family member, the endless grief of parents who have lost a child, being of two worlds, how one choice can alter a life.  Holding the heft of this novel in your hands, it is clear the time and creative energy and deep reflection that went into creating this engaging story.

I enjoyed this novel so much I started marking passages with post-it notes so I could easily find them later and ruminate further over the language and ideas.  So much of this engaging story is thought-provoking.  But it is also deeply real, incredibly well-composed and artful.

The story starts in Seattle in June of 1998. Amina Eapen is busy working as a wedding photographer when she receives a phone call from her mother revealing that her father has been conversing with his dead mother (who died twenty years before).  Amina’s mother doesn’t believe he is delusional, simply filled with weakness and devilish spirits.

The story shifts to India in 1979.  Amina is eleven. Her immediate family has journeyed to her father’s former hometown to visit with his mother and brother.  They bring American trinkets for the extended family, play cricket with their cousin, and watch their grandmother’s scheming, and their uncle’s bizarre night time behavior and then the visit is cut short. This creates a rift in the family and Amina’s uncle’s last words will soon be deeply prophetic.

The family interactions in this novel are deeply realistic.  At the center of the India drama is Thomas Eapen (Amina’s father), the brother who left, and Sunil, the brother who stayed behind and feels like a failure.  Ammachy, their mother, wants her first born son to return home and may be one of the few Indian mothers not to kvell over a successful brain surgeon son (she snaps: “Well no one asked you to become a brain surgeon”. His choice to be a brain surgeon makes it impossible for him to work in India which creates a tension between him and his mother and him and his wife).   She’s so caustic and particular and thus deeply authentic in the eyes of this reader. She tells her granddaughter she must be clever since she’s not pretty, she calls one of her grandsons a no-brains, she meddles endlessly and she refuses to accept that her son’s home is anywhere but the one she created for him. She also disparages Thomas’s wife for being too dark.

Back in Seattle (or the present day of the novel), Amina prepares to put her life on hold and return to New Mexico to help her parents. We learn all about her budding love affair with photography and the story behind the photograph that stalled her career as a budding photo journalist.
The novel shifts again to a time during Amina’s adolescence when her brother struggled with a unique medical malady. The novel does an artful job of showing how even a family helmed by a doctor can ignore signs of serious illness.

I connected deeply to Amina’s experience of taking care of her father as he fights cancer. Jacob, who lost her own father, writes about the experience of facing the perilous future so giftedly.  Simply sentences resonate deeply. For example, “It was getting harder not to spiral these days, to hear one thing and think of the next and the next,  until all that was left was a closet of her father’s sweaters and shoes” (397).  I was deeply moved by the scene that follows. Amina’s father asks her how she knows when to take a picture. And together they decide the reason he can’t get a good photograph of his wife is that “she’s a pretty woman who makes ugly faces” (398).

I also greatly enjoyed Amina’s romantic story line. She connects with a boy from her high school past – something that some would perceive as cliché. But the relationship between Jamie and Amina is complicated and authentic. It also made me consider my own parents relationship with a new sense of perspective (they were high school sweethearts who reconnected in their thirties).

There were many occasions while reading that I stopped to linger over Jacob’s use of language.  For example:
“They were luminous. Pieces of moon fallen from the sky, still reflecting every bit of light from the known universe. Smiling at her across the yard in a way she hadn’t seen in years, may have never seen.” (pg. 449).

“Because really, it didn’t matter whether he was the by-product of Thomas’s tumor or some filament of time slipped through a chink in the universe; it didn’t matter that Kamala and the others could not, would not, would never see him. The very idea that Akhil could be in the garden had brought back his loss, pushing it into every corner until the house bled with it. If she shut her eyes, Amina could feel exactly how gone her brother was, her ability to weigh his absence extra keen, dialed up like a blind person’s ability to hear.” (pg. 457).

There is a rhythm to Jacob's use of language that is uniquely her own.

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is a tremendous feat. It’s a story that brings the reader inside its rich worlds to struggle and grieve and discover and fall in love with the Eapens and their extended family. It’s a story that brings us inside the experiences of a loving community of Suriyani Christian Indians. It’s a story that shows how adolescence can deeply shape us and mold our later choices. It’s a story that shows that even with deep sorrow there can be magic moments found a midst family.

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