Mira Jacob’s ‘The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing’ is one of my favorite novels I’ve read so far this year—so funny and moving and crammed with life. Here’s my review for the Dallas Morning News:
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing
(Random House, $26)
Near the end of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, an Indian-American woman named Dimple tells her mother that she and her fiancé want to elope. Her mother can’t believe it: “Fine-fine not coming home and all, busy girl with a busy life, but a wedding? Without family? Might as well have a zoo without animals!”
In this funny, moving debutnovel, Jacob gives readers the gift of the full family zoo, with animals included. Amina Eapen, Dimple’s cousin and the book’s protagonist, has been living her professional life in Seattle, off stage from the drama of her family. Still, nearly everything important that’s ever happened to her has taken place at home in New Mexico, near her loving, voluble and often difficult family.
Some of them are relations, while others are fellow Syrian Christian Indian immigrants marooned in Albuquerque who forged bonds as strong as blood. Amina’s parents, Thomas and Kamala Eapen, emigrated from India to Albuquerque in 1968, “when the city was nothing but eighty miles of hope huddling in a dust storm.”
As the book opens in 1998, Kamala calls 30-year-old Amina in Seattle to tell her she’s worried about Thomas, an eminent brain surgeon who has been talking for days, out loud, to family members who died years earlier. “I am thinking he’s on his way out,” Kamala tells her daughter.
Although Amina is a professional photographer and it’s June, the height of wedding season, she begs time off and flies home to Albuquerque to get to the bottom of Thomas’ troubles.
Amina didn’t quite live up to her family’s expectations for her career. Rather than becoming “a vet for puppies and kittens only,” as she declared when she was a child, she became a news photographer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 1992, when she was on assignment to photograph a Microsoft party on a yacht, she captured an image of a tragedy unfolding, a photo that became famous, embroiled her in controversy and rendered her unable to continue her journalism career. As the book unfolds, Jacob reveals that Amina’s extreme difficulty following this event is related to two tragedies that punctuated her childhood and teenage years.
Amina becomes a wedding photographer as a way to stay financially afloat without having to feel too much about her subjects. Still, when Dimple, a gallery owner, decides to show some of Amina’s photographs, Kamala plays it up for the New Mexico crowd, calling it, “An honor of her artsmanship by the authorities of Seattle.”
As Amina realizes the gravity of Thomas’ health problems, the narrative moves back and forth in time, from India to New Mexico to Seattle, revealing all the struggles this family has been through and making it clear how talking to dead people or seeing ghosts makes perfect sense for the Eapens.
Page by page, this book delights with its spot-on humor, evocation of empathy and its endearing characters, such as Kamala, “all sari and tennis shoes and braid and scrutiny,” a world-class cook of Indian specialties who expresses displeasure by cooking French or American food that leaves the house smelling “insistently of American restaurants, of heavy meat undelighted by real spices.” It’s a novel filled with glorious bickering, of an intensity that has Amina worrying at one point that her parents will split up.
But she shouldn’t fret. “Indians don’t leave,” her brother tells her. “They’re into the whole live-forever-in-misery thing.”
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is a big-hearted triumph. For those of us who come from families that might sit around late in the day after a funeral, drinking whatever alcohol friends and neighbors brought and cracking each other up by remembering the funny things that the departed said and did, the Eapens will feel like relations, even if we weren’t raised on appam and chutney.