When a successful brain surgeon begins to sit on his porch and speak to his long-deceased mother, his daughter is summoned to her childhood home in New Mexico to try to make sense of what is happening. Kamala Eapen and her husband, Thomas, have maintained no more than a cordial engagement for decades. Their marriage has been savaged by enough trauma: a rift sown by a fateful 1979 holiday to his own childhood home in India, the subsequent loss of that entire wing of relatives, and then their own son Akhil’s tragic death as a teenager. So Amina Eapen – a gifted former photojournalist who has chosen to hide in the more banal world of wedding photography in order to cope with her varied melancholies – is only one among the many who return to her father. His memories, regrets, and more than several of his dead loved ones have too. Amina’s task is not so much as to find out why, but to find a way toward an elusive peace – for all of them, and all of their ghosts.
Mira Jacob’s debut novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing, is a brilliant accomplishment. It takes a familiar premise – that of a crisis in the family forcing someone in the younger generation to confront the past and thus facilitate healing – and spins it into something original, fresh and often funny.
The book brims with the honesty of its setting and its characterisations: it is unlike the vast majority of diasporic fiction in that neither it nor its protagonists’ lives pivot on the fact of immigration. India is not romanticised; the only losses that count are those of people and relationships. True to life, in the circumstance of immediate grief, there is neither room nor reason to indulge grandiose imaginaries.
But certain things are definitely not imaginary, even as they find rational explanatory parallels. Medical science explains Thomas’ visitations from the dead, but not Amina’s own enigmatic experiences. With an astonishing lightness of hand, Jacob weaves the realms of spirit and doubt in a way that resounds with the truth of most human experience.
At a substantial 500 pages, a length at which any novel might risk tedium, The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing nonetheless glides by. Jacob has succeeded in creating that rare thing in this age of the fragmented attention span: a big book so gripping and so charming that it truly can be read in a day, its many pages flying by effortlessly.
The heart of this novel is not suffering, but the ways in which faith and love can suffuse pain with a quality that makes it somehow less irredeemable. In Albuquerque, the Eapens belong to a motley new family composed of other Indian immigrants. They are so close that Amina’s best friend Dimple, who like her lives in Seattle as an adult, is introduced to people as her cousin. It is this patchwork family who rally around through Thomas’ medical diagnosis, just as they had in all difficulties past. In caring for her father, Amina finds in them her own safe harbour – and with it the courage to end her own self-sabotages and step into the potential others see in her, as an artist, a partner and a daughter.
Among the novel’s outstanding points is its beautiful structure. Moving between Seattle and Albuquerque past and present (with a brief prelude in Salem, Tamil Nadu, where the Eapens’ ties to India are permanently severed), the author maintains the story through a talent for the graceful cliffhanger, convincing dialogue and a palpable compassion – we know what binds the characters is not their grief.
Thus, despite its sadness, this is above all an uplifting, reaffirming book. The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing is a moving paean to human existence: forever poised between the facts of the mundane yet also waltzing with the mysterious in experiences too esoteric to bring into the open, except by way of that great intangible – love.
An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.