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14 August 2014

Mira Jacob: The Sleepwalkers Guide to Dancing

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Memorable and emotional story
I was fascinated by the title of THE SLEEPWALKERS GUIDE TO DANCING and then I was also fascinated by this excellent debut multi-generational and multicultural family story by talented author Mira Jacob.

Brain surgeon Thomas Eapen, his wife Kamala and son Akhil moved from India to New Mexico in the late 1960's, and daughter, Amina is born in the US. In 1979 Jacob takes the family back to India to revisit their his family, dominated by the matriarch of the family Ammachy who is plotting to get Thomas to move back to India. The visit tells us a lot about the stresses in his family background and the bonds that Thomas and his family have to deal with in their new life in America. The bonds are there but the tolerance isn't and Thomas cuts the visit short, much to the dismay of Ammachy and their Indian relatives.

Jacob tells most of the story through the eyes of Amina, in her early teens and then in her early 30's as she copes with the strains on her family and especially her bonds to her father. Jacob moves us seamlessly from India to America and between the years. At the start of the book Amina, then living and working as a wedding photographer in Seattle, gets a message from Kamala that her father, Thomas, is acting very strangely, staying up most of the night, apparently talking to dead relatives and burying things in the garden. Although she knows that Kamala often exaggerates, she is persuaded to go back to find out what is happening.

Amina soon realises that to help her father and to understand his actions she needs to revisit her family's painful past and the tensions that still haunt her family. She explores the bonds of love, the grief of loss and the need to make peace with the past. She also needs to explore and face up to her personal future, and her career as a photographer with artistic ambitions.

Mira Jacob has an uncanny ability to describe the dynamics of an Indian family living in a western society. Her description of how Kamala still keeps her Indian heritage in a new country is palpable. Kamala still mostly wears a sari (incongruously with tennis shoes), and drives and dominates here family by cooking traditional Indian dishes in abundance and getting upset if they don't eat what she gives them.

This is very different family literary fiction of the highest order, bringing us close to many memorable characters and following the fortunes of a multicultural family. Jacob's prose is easy to read and gives us great observations of a family struggling to cope with itself and their environment. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to read a family saga that is very different and enlightening.

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