Mira Jacob’s ‘The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing’ is a sharp portrait of a grieving family

07/18/2014 7:00 AM

07/30/2014 9:57 AM

Grief in all its forms haunts the pages of Mira Jacob’s expansive debut novel, “The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing,” but for the Eapens, the Indian-American immigrant family at its center, one kind in particular cuts deepest: the loss of a child.

“They say it’s unlike anything else,” Jacob writes. “A grief so profound it can bring people closer to the dying than the living.”

Jacob follows the Eapens across three decades as she explores the way grief both defines and cripples their attempts to build a life in a new country. Sections of the novel alternate between Salem, India, in the late 1970s to Albuquerque, N.M., in the ’80s to Seattle in 1998.

After his teenage son, Akhil, dies in a tragedy borne from a sleeping disorder, Thomas Eapen buries himself in his work at an Albuquerque hospital, refusing to seek help when he starts hallucinating and speaking to the dead.

His wife, Kamala, responds by tightening her near-tyrannical control of the house and the family narrative, rewriting their history and rearranging her husband and daughter’s lives without their permission.

Their daughter Amina, a talented photographer, retreats inward, all but disappearing behind her camera lens.

Grief and loss are complexly rendered, but Jacob peppers the narrative with rare moments of warmth and pleasure as well. Sensory descriptions abound, from the glimmering chutneys and floury chapatis of Kamala’s kitchen to the oppressive Indian heat that spikes the air with the smell of sun-softened tar.

Her prose is refreshingly crisp and concrete, and well-tooled similes seem to spring naturally from her characters’ imaginations: take-out boxes “slumped together like old men in bad weather,” an aunt with “a body that moved like a jogging meatball.”

The novel’s greatest strength is the sensitivity of Amina’s perspective. Ghosts and memories stalk her periphery, and she abandons her budding career as a photojournalist after her photo of a Native American community leader committing suicide makes the front page.

She works out her guilt as a wedding photographer, and the composition of her photos, much like Jacob’s scenes, is exquisite, her snapshots packed with vivid and specific detail. Mundane subjects pulse with an almost threatening energy in her lens, as when “double-headed snakes of jumper cables” bare their “copper jaws.”

Amina’s perspective as a child in India is no less observationally astute, and when family ties start to crumble around her, her imagination becomes a refuge from her growing understanding of adulthood’s politics and disappointments. After a fraught family conflict, she lays down on the staircase with an ear pressed to the cool marble steps.

“A whole muffled world rumbled under her ear,” Jacob writes, “clicks and groans of the house, the shup-shupping of someone’s slippers, slow whale-like moans that she imagined coming from the depths of a huge, cool ocean.”

At more than 500 pages, the novel can feel overly long, and a few narrative detours — such as a bizarre raccoon-scaring invention — threaten to clog its intimate focus and feel. But the momentum never stalls, and Jacob expertly balances looser, introspective passages with clipped scenes of furious action and terse verbal sparring.

An explosive, multigenerational brawl back in India is a narrative highlight, a masterfully drawn storm of stubbornness and dashed dreams. Family members lash out like wounded animals, each blinded by personal tragedies.

For a novel that spans continents, cultures and decades, Jacob never loses the core of those familial connections, and she has a knack for surprising readers with glimpses of gentleness and vulnerability in even the most unforgiving scenes and characters.

“The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing” is a rich, engrossing debut told with lightness and care, as smart about grief as it is about the humor required to transcend it.

B5The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob (512 pages; Random House; $26)

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