I downloaded THE SLEEPWALKER’S GUIDE TO DANCING entirely on the basis of its title, sure that a title so delicious could only lead to disappointment. Instead, I wish I could read it again for the first time. I bought a paper copy just so I can mark all my favorite passages and reread them until I can recite them in my head with my eyes closed, and make everyone I know read it too. I’m not sure I can manage a coherent review of this one beyond “it’s amazing – read it” but I’ll ramble on for a bit anyway.
We have three time-places connected to the Eapen family: Seattle/Albuquerque in 1998, Salem, India in 1979, and Albuquerque in 1982. The story begins with Kamala, Amina’s mother, calling to summon Amina home to deal with her ailing father, Thomas. Amina, a photographer, is in crisis herself, reeling after she takes a disturbing photo that becomes iconic. She has taken a job as a wedding photographer, literally keeping her more artistic work shut away in a closet and deflecting her gallery-owner cousin Dimple’s attempts to bring her into the spotlight.
Kamala and Thomas have their own not-so-secret history. Kamala has always longed to return home to India, while Thomas ends up cutting short a visit to his family to retreat back to America, but the motherland (and his mother) will come back to haunt him. Part of their story is one of assimilation, but it’s more complicated than that.
When Amina returns home, she finds that her father has been speaking to the dead and her born-again mother is trying to find her a husband and job to keep her in Albuquerque (much as Ammachy, Thomas’s mother, once tried to keep him at home). The reader knows that Amina’s beloved brother is long-dead, but the details of that story play out in the 1980s, when Amina and Akhil are in high school and Akhil begins acting very oddly, falling asleep unexpectedly and for long stretches of time.
Jacobs examines the difference between living in the past and carrying it with you, finding your place in a family that has broken, and accepting . Amina struggles with grief, her relationship to her art, and (to a lesser extent) her Indian-American identity. Her examination of grief is one of the most true and poignant I’ve read:
“How to explain that she felt like, if she cried, if she actually started, she might never stop? That it felt too bottomless, like jumping into one of those cave pools that was the size of a pond but actually thousands of feet deep?”
While Jacobs made me cry, she also, in the midst of grief, made me laugh:
“And even if Amina didn’t yet know what it was to love like that, to burn until your spine has no choice but to try to wind itself around an empty shirt, she understood for sure that the people who said it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all were a bunch of dicks.”
I have to admit that the romance bit really didn’t do anything for me, but it at least didn’t detract from the story.
Gorgeous book. Go read it.
Source disclosure: I purchased this copy in multiple formats.