Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing: Visions of India

Mira Jacob's debut novel The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing is, naturally and almost too easily, drawing lots of comparisons to Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction. That's because it's a decades-long tale of a family that immigrates from India to the U.S. But whereas Lahiri's fiction is almost always unflinchingly straightforward and earnest, Jacob's contains many moments of levity that kind of sneak up on you if you're not reading carefully.

Here's one example: Kamala's son Akhil paints a mural on his bedroom ceiling, including such important figures to his new left-leaning world view as Gandhi, Che Guevara, and Rob Halford. Kamala explains to friends who don't knew who Halford is that he's a "singing priest." Kamala makes quite a few of these mistakes throughout the novel, and they're always amusing.

But on the whole, you wouldn't confuse Jacob's novel with slapstick by any stretch. There are some weighty issues to be dealt with here, and you get that sense from the opening scene: Kamala calls late 20s daughter Amina and tells her that her father Thomas is having long conversations with his mother; which would be fine, except his mother's been dead for 15 years.

So Amina rushes home to Albuquerque to find out what's wrong. We jump back to India in the 1970s to learn about Thomas's strained relationship with his mother and brother. We ease into 1980s Albuquerque where Amina and Akhil are high school students struggling to fit in as first-generation immigrants. And then we go back and forth between 1998 Seattle (where Amina makes a living as a photographer) and Albuquerque where she tries to right the ship and fend off her mother attempts to hook her up with eligible Indian bachelors.

The story hinges on what really is wrong with Thomas. Have a series of tragedies over the years finally caused him to lose touch with reality? Are his visions simply a coping mechanism? And as Amina tries to keep her own sanity, how does she deal with her own demons...and her constantly nagging mother?
It's a strangely fluid story for as much as it seems to jump around. And despite its 500-page length, it's a story that goes by quickly. Highly recommended!


  1. Great review. I can see comparisons with Lahiri as well, though I really prefer Jacob. Lahiri always leaves me feeling listless and exhausted.

    1. Interesting. Lahiri is in intense, for sure, but her language is so gorgeous, lyrical. She's one of my favorite writers. I think Jacob is probably okay with the Lahiri comparisons, even if it's just a surface-comparison.