The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing: A Novel

By Mira Jacob

(Random House, $26, 512 pages)

Who is this author?

Mira Jacob is not a familiar name to most readers, but she has earned widespread praise for her debut novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. Her novel was on the shortlist for India’s Tata First Literature Award was and made the best books of 2014 lists put out by Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Goodreads, Bustle and The Millions.

Jacob, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son and teaches fiction at New York University, was a co-founder of Pete’s Reading Series in Brooklyn, an organization that sponsored on-stage presentations of literary fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She also has taught writing in New Mexico and Barcelona, has contributed to such magazines as Vogue and Redbook, and last year was named the Emerging Novelist Honoree at Hudson Valley Writer’s Center. 

What is this book about?

A daughter hears from her mother, a woman who often embellishes her stories, that her father, Thomas, a famous brain surgeon, has taken to holding conversations with dead relatives at their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Amina, a wedding photographer living in Seattle, takes Kamala’s concerns seriously and returns home to find that indeed, something strange is going on and it is apparently related to a trip home to India that the Eapen family, including rebellious Akhil, Amina’s brother, took 20 years earlier. Akhil’s life took a sad turn, and Amina discovers that she must uncover unpleasant truths about their history to understand what is troubling her father and to help her family.

Why you’ll like it:

Family sagas, especially those that carefully reveal hidden truths and closely guarded secrets, have universal appeal. Jacob’s novel, cleverly plotted and deftly and often wittily written, spins one such story and augments its power by being set it in the world of Indian immigrants to America, a fast-growing and increasingly influential group in business and politics. This particular family is Christian, which may surprise some readers. But you don’t have to know much about life in India or among its expatriates here to appreciate this nuanced story of a family whose future depends on squarely facing its past.

What others are saying:

“Jacob’s novel is light and optimistic, unpretentious and refreshingly witty. Jacob has created characters with evident care and treats them with gentleness even as they fight viciously with each other. Her prose is sharp and true and deeply funny. . . . This is the literary fiction I will be recommending to everyone this summer, especially those who love multigenerational, multicultural family sagas,” says the Associated Press.

Entertainment Weekly says: “This debut novel so fully envelops the reader in the soul of an Indian-American immigrant family that it’s heart-wrenching to part with them. . . . Thanks to Jacob’s captivating voice, which is by turns hilarious and tender and always attuned to shifts of emotion, her characters shimmer with life. [Grade:] A-.”

Publishers Weekly says: Toggling back and forth between the early 1980s and late 1990s, Jacob’s emotionally bountiful debut immerses us in the lives of Amina Eapen and her extended Indian-American family, who have lived in Albuquerque, N.Mex., since the late 1960s. In 1998, Amina, then age 30, works as a wedding photographer, having given up a promising photojournalism career after a single picture—a photo of a Native American activist jumping off a bridge—made her notorious. She moved to Seattle to distance herself from her overbearing parents, Kamala and Thomas, but returns home after learning that Thomas, a surgeon, has begun acting strangely. She plans to make it a short trip but decides to stay after her father is diagnosed with a brain tumor. This extended visit forces Amina to confront anew the death of her older brother Akhil, who committed suicide as a teenager, and to rekindle her romance with Jamie Anderson, whose sister was Akhil’s girlfriend. The author has a wonderful flair for recreating the messy sprawl of family life, with all its joy, sadness, frustration, and anger. Although overlong, the novel, through its lovingly created and keenly observed characters, makes something new of the Indian immigrant experience in America.

Says Library Journal: “In this strong debut novel, grief has haunted the Eapen family since their move from India to the United States in the late 1960s. Now, in the late 1990s, Amina Eapen is called back from Seattle to her parents’ home in New Mexico to deal with her brain surgeon father’s presumably delusional dialog with dead relatives, and the family’s grief powers to the forefront. As the poignant yet witty and irreverent story unfolds, Amina seeks to disentangle fact from fiction, especially regarding the suicide of her precocious brother, Akhil. Ultimately, the Eapens must relive their past in order to face a troubling future. VERDICT Jacob’s writing is refreshing, and she excels at creating a powerful bond between the reader and her characters, all wonderfully drawn and with idiosyncratic natures—the mother, Kamala, for instance, is a born-again Christian—that make them enchanting. Recommended for those who like engaging fiction that succeeds in addressing serious issues with some humor.

A starred review from Kirkus says: “Jacob’s darkly comic debut—about a photographer’s visit to her parents’ New Mexico home during a family crisis—is grounded in the specifics of the middle-class Indian immigrant experience while uncovering the universality of family dysfunction and endurance. Amina Eapen was born in New Mexico, but her older brother, Akhil, was born in India before the family moved to America. Amina and Akhil chafed against their parents’ evident unhappiness—their mother, Kamala, clung to impossible dreams of returning to India; their father, Thomas, disappeared into his medical practice—while also enjoying the extended Christian Indian community to which the Eapens have always belonged . . . . By the time Thomas is diagnosed with a physical disease, Amina is feeling a bit haunted by the past herself—she can’t escape from memories of growing up with the gifted but troubled Akhil, whose death as a high school senior was a blow from which no one in the family has recovered. Amina also finds a lover she avoids introducing to her parents for good reason: He’s the brother of Akhil’s high school sweetheart, and he isn’t Indian. Amina’s romance, as well as mouthwatering descriptions of Kamala’s cooking, leavens but does not diminish the Eapens’ family tragedy. Comparisons of Jacob to Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable; Lahiri may be more overtly profound, Jacob more willing to go for comedy, but both write with naked honesty about the uneasy generational divide among Indians in America and about family in all its permutations.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain Branch have copies of this book.

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