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The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

Mira Jacob’s absorbing, darkly funny debut novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is the story of the Eapen family, successful immigrants from Tamil Nadu, India, whose bonds to each other are strengthened by adversity. With a storyline that veers at times into magical realism, in its darker moments the book becomes something of a cautionary tale about the corrosive effects of guilt on the human psyche.

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob
Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, Mira Jacob (Random House, July 2014; Bloomsbury Publishing, July 2014)

Thomas Eapen, a brain surgeon, and his wife Kamala live in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The book opens with a distressed call from Kamala to their daughter Amina, a successful professional photographer, in Seattle. Thomas, it seems, has been spending his evenings talking to dead relatives.


For three nights in a row Thomas Eapen sat on the porch, one side of a furious conversation rolling over his tongue to spill out the window screen.


Amina and her cousin Dimple, are skeptical of Kamala’s call. Dimple thinks Kamala might be trying yet again to set up Amina with a “Potential”, a Suriani (Syrian Christian) man.


“It’s a way for Kamala to get you back home. Where she can get you married.” She pointed at Amina with her cigarette. “Before your uterus dries up.”


Nonetheless, Amina returns to Albuquerque, only to find much more waiting for her there than she expected and she begins piecing together deeply buried fragments of family history that help her decode her father’s increasingly bizarre behavior. Flooded with memories, she recalls a disastrous family trip to visit Ammachy, Thomas’s mother, the family matriarch, in Salem, India. “She’s half grandmother, half wolf, you know?” her older brother Akhil had warned Amina at the time.

Resentful of Thomas’s choice to leave Salem and raise his family in Albuquerque, Ammachy and Thomas’ brother Sunil raised the emotional temperature of the visit to the boiling point. Attempting to spare Kamala and the kids, Thomas decided to cut the visit short, and the Albuquerque Eapens’ abrupt departure created an unbridgeable gap between Thomas and his family in India.


“But what a calamity! An abomination! Divorced from the mother and the motherland in one fell swoop? Who could have seen such a thing coming?”


Jacobs has said in an interview, “The fact that you can have a new world floating around you just by opening a book will never cease to amaze me.” The Sleepwalker’s Guide pulls the reader into the world of the Eapens, moving back and forth in time from Amina’s high school days in the 1980s to the book’s present and back to India in the late 1970s. It is a family drama at its heart, and the Eapens are sympathetic characters—a smart, quirky bunch that win the reader over. It is also very funny, often using Kamala’s unique view of American popular culture as a foil. Here she tells Amina that Seattle is too rainy,


“No wonder that dirty man shot himself—all that time without sun and this devil woman tearing her pantyhoses.”


“Kurt Cobain was a junkie, Ma.”


“Because he needed more sun!”


The author has said she based Thomas on her own father. The fictional Thomas is at once charismatic and an enigma to his family. Work-obsessed and often absent, when home he is prone to sip scotch alone late at night. When he is diagnosed with a serious illness, the extended family and friends rally around him, and his illness turns out to be a mixed blessing, because it allows him heightened powers of perception. He sees, or seems to see, his dead relatives and that helps him to come to terms with the survivor’s guilt he suffers from leaving his family behind in India. Either from empathy or hallucination, Amina briefly shares his vision, and Kamala, ever the doting wife and mother, goes along for the ride.


Jacob's authorial style is not overly complex or dense, it is straightforward, and narrative-driven. There is a cadence to the plot that moves the book forward, augmented by rich description. In a passage that reminds us to be grateful for everyday pleasures, she reflects upon the comfort provided by a home-cooked meal,


The pancake cracked under Amina’s fingers with a burst of steam that smelled of turmeric and chilies, filling her with relief so sharp that it erased everything but itself. She ate one more dosa and then another, dimly aware of her mother spooning chutney onto her plate and refilling her glass with water.


At times The Sleepwalker’s Guide can be a little too cute, and loose ends might seem too neatly tied up, but the novel resonates deeply when it explores life’s inevitable crueler moments. (The Eapens face a generous dose of loss and heartbreak.)

Like the familiar cycle of life itself, circumstances change and individual characters fortunes rise and fall. The book ends poignantly, but on a note of hope. Reading about the Eapens’ struggle with, among other issues, the tension between loyalty to one’s parents and to oneself, or the festering of an unresolved family misunderstanding causes the reader to review her own relationships, while never feeling bogged down by the storyline. To the contrary, this reviewer read in a few pleasurable sittings a book that took Jacob ten years to write.

Jill Baker is an Adjunct Fellow at the Asia Business Council in Hong Kong.