Often, the books you love conjure memories about where you were or what was happening in your life while you were reading them. I have a very specific memory of embarking on Mira Jacob’s gripping novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. My husband and I were sitting on a bench on one of the spoke pathways that radiate from the center of Washington Square Park in New York City, just blocks from our home. It was near the end of this past summer, so there was a slight breeze in the air and our beloved hound, Gavin, was standing beside us taking in the myriad stimuli, wondering why his human companions couldn’t seem to decide whether to laugh or cry. I read aloud to my husband the prologue to Jacob’s novel, a conversation between Kamala Eapen, an Indian mother, and Amina Eapen, her single, adult daughter:
“It’s some big thing? So don’t come.”
“It’s just a bad time. It’s my busiest time.”
“Yes, I understand. It’s just your father.”
“Oh, stop. I mean, if you really need me to come out, then of course I’ll come, but …” Amina pressed her fingers to her eyelids. Leaving work in the high season? Insane.
Her mother took a deep breath. “Yes. That would be very nice, if you could manage it.”
Amina pulled the receiver away from her ear, staring at it. She had never heard a sentence sound less like it could have come from Kamala’s mouth, but there it was, her mother’s attempt at accommodation as discordant as the hidden message in a record played backward. Something is wrong. Something is really wrong.
“I’ll get a ticket out next week,” Amina found herself saying.
As Indian Americans, my husband and I are no strangers to these types of conversations and their not-so-subtle subtexts, and we found ourselves wiping tears from the sides of our eyes as we laughed, drawing stares from Gavin and the strangers on nearby benches. We were both hooked. We made plans to read the book—he digitally and I traditionally.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing unravels the intergenerational family saga that has kept Amina in Seattle, away from her family home in New Mexico, and away from whatever, or whoever, has summoned her back. Unfortunately for me and my husband, the next few months were filled with our own renovation saga, replete with a shady neighbor, a drunk and threatening contractor, an architect who was alternately MIA and incompetent, and city bureaucracy that trumped any mazes concocted in the realm of fiction. During these months, although we were desperate for distraction, we found that we couldn’t maintain enough concentration to read because of our constant anxiety.
Although the renovation hassles continue in ways that astound us, we reclaimed our lives, if not our home, by deciding to focus on small pleasures. Thankfully The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing was much more than that.
The narrative of the Eapen clan is revealed as much by what they say as by the family’s silence in the face of disappointment, betrayal, death, and grief. This silence is as vast as the thousands of miles that separate Amina’s father’s hereditary home in Kerala, India, from their family home in the suburbs of Albuquerque. In the opening conversation, Kamala casually informs Amina that her father, Thomas is spending his nights talking to invisible figures, including his dead mother:
“He’s fine,” Kamala said. “It’s not like that. You’re not listening.”
“I am listening! You just told me he’s delusional, and I’m asking—”
“I DID NOT SAY HE IS DELUSIONAL. I SAID HE WAS TALKING TO HIS MOTHER.”
“Who is dead,” Amina said gently.
“And that’s not delusional?”
“There are choices, Amina! Choices that we make as human beings on this planet Earth. If someone decides to let the devil in, then of course they will see demons everywhere they look. This is not delusional. This is weakness.”
Amina has spent years seeking refuge from the burden of a family that alternately hides its grief over personal tragedies, including the loss of Amina’s beloved elder brother, Akhil, and of Thomas’s extended family in Kerala, behind mounds of work and walls of silence. As a teenager, she found solace and a hidden talent behind the lens of a camera, documenting the multifaceted dissolution of her family. But for years, she has subverted her dark, complex artistic vision as a photographer, turning instead to making a conventional living as a wedding photographer. Now, Amina is forced to confront haunting events from her past and find a path forward for herself and her family.
Jacob skillfully weaves together the lush landscapes of Kerala with the arid environs of New Mexico; an old world familial household buckling under expectations and tradition, and a family developing its own traditions in a new world. The book is filled with light moments, as Jacob infuses the story and her characters with wit and humor. She has an ear for dialogue, which is challenging in a book that spans continents and generations. She captures both the cadences of speech as well as its inadequacy, which is central to the Eapen family narrative—and, I suspect, to most immigrant family narratives.
As an Indian American, I loved that Jacob’s book acknowledged and addressed the family’s Indian heritage without being preoccupied by it, or worse, exotifying it for Western readers. I also truly appreciate that the marketing of the book itself, from the cover image to the blurbs, does not seek to label Jacob’s novel as an Indian narrative. I consider The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing to be as Indian a narrative as Eugenides’s Middlesex is Greek: they both give a nod to their respective cultures for context and yet they are both essentially stories of modern American life. And that’s as it should be.
My one gripe with the book is that we learn almost nothing about Kamala’s background. We become intimately familiar with the cast of characters that make up Thomas’s extended Kerala family, and we are told that Thomas’s mother is unhappy that he married Kamala, mostly because of her dark complexion. But no mention is made of Kamala’s family and her connection with them. While Thomas’s complicated family provides us with insight into his thoughts and actions throughout the novel, we are left without comparative insights into Kamala, which is unfortunate because Kamala often serves as a bridge between an uncommunicative and distant Thomas and their children.
This lopsidedness aside, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is compelling and transporting. I was eager to get to know its characters and now I feel as if I have always known them, as if they are extensions of my own family. During a time when we felt displaced and preoccupied, my husband and I were able to put down roots in a story faraway, yet so close to home. And that’s no small pleasure.