Friday, November 21, 2014

Review: "The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing" by Mira Jacob

The second version of the cover is jaw-droppingly
beautiful, like the book itself.
Amina Eapen tries not to go home too often. She finds her immigrant parents difficult--too much at odds with her own American dreams, too eager to set her up with nice young men from other Indian families, too hobbled by the memory of her brother's death.

When she hears that her father is hallucinating ghosts, however, Amina knows she has to go.

Amina's trip home raises a flurry of her own memories. Of her family's last fateful visit to India, when her grandmother's angry love for her emigrant son drives him into exile; of the bizarre narcolepsy her genius brother experienced in his teenage years that led to his death; of photograph of the bridge-jumper which both made Amina's career and drove her away from photojournalism forever, afraid of her own instinct for witnessing ruin.

This unwilling homecoming digs up all the buried wounds which the Eapens have kept hidden for years. But while her father's condition worsens, there remains the hope that they may lay these ghosts to rest at last.

5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

It looks like Mira Jacob's The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing didn't make it to the final round of voting for the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2014. This is a travesty. I take full responsibility for it. If I had written this review in a timely manner, all ten of you, dear readers, would have known to pick up, enjoy, and then vote for this fantastic novel.

The Best New Books of 2014 may have been selected, but it's not too late for me to recommend this book for the year ahead. Full disclosure: my copy is an ARC, so there may be slight changes in the final published edition. I can't imagine there being many, however, as the edition I read is pretty near perfect.

Even readers unfamiliar with Indian culture (and with that separate entity, the culture of emigrants who find themselves at odds with both their country of birth and their country of choice) will find this novel sending roots into their hearts. The characters immediately leap off the page into familiarity. Any reader will recognize their own friends and families in the Eapens, the mixed warmth and strain between people who have known each other too long and never well enough.
"So the Ramakrishnas want to see you tomorrow. Raj is making jalebis."Amina winced. "Why can't we tell him that I don't like him?""You loved them when you were little!"It was Akhil who loved them, but saying so would hurt her mother in the way all mentions of Akhil hurt her, the prick of his name silencing her for minutes or sometimes hours. "Well, I really don't love them now.""Raj loves making them for you, and your father loves eating, so no big deals, right?"Right. "Where is Dad, anyway?""Big surgery. Your skin is looking good. You've been using the Pond's I sent you?""Wait, he's operating?""What else would he be doing?""I don't know. Resting?""He's not sick.""He's sick enough for you to ask me to come down.""You're the one who decided you needed to come down."Amina shook her head but said nothing. Why bother? Once rewritten, Kamala's history was safer than classified government documents.
But the tree that grows from those roots bears bitter fruit. Amina's family--both nuclear and extended--is characterized by love, but even more by pride. Time and again, its members fail to approach one another, fail to speak necessary and healing words. The reader will understand at once how important it is to Thomas to speak to the apparition of his dead son, to tell him all the stories and jokes and confessions he failed to share when Akhil was alive. The reader will also understand that the Eapen family failing is ongoing: while he tries to reconnect with his dead son, Thomas ignores the presence of his living daughter,

The actual cover I hold in my hand,
an admittedly less striking design. 
The book waltzes near the precipice of magic realism. Amina seems to encounter her brother's ghost more than once, although she is ambivalent about confirming her experience for the reader's sake. Still, I feel there is room for the presence of maybe-ghosts in a story about family, memory, and grief without labelling it other than "general contemporary fiction."

Despite the everpresent background hum of grief and family tension, The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing is not a grim read. You will chuckle as you turn the pages, sometimes shake your head with affectionate resignation, but not weep. The characters burble over with wit and good humor. Tales of wedding photography, paired with Amina's unerring eye for disaster, is outright comedy.

Jacob's prose is the best I have seen in a debut novel. It's fun and fresh without drawing attention to itself. She has an eerily apt eye for metaphors, such as in describing one family friend whose constant pessimistic declarations are ignored by his cheerful family, "giving him the air of a king ruling the wrong kingdom." Her multilayered descriptions drag in all of a reader's senses, until one forgets the pages one is turning and only sees (and smells, and hears) the Eapens' world.

I've read The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing three times since I picked it up, and I would happily read it again. Each time, the story draws me in like something entirely new and unexpected. Now that is rare. Usually, when I reread a book, I know what's going to happen.

Thanks Amanda for the loan of this book! I'll give it back in another few months. Maybe.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: character death, cancer

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