Book Review | The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing

With an endearing cast that includes ghosts, this debut will leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling


The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. Photo: Bloomsbury India
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. Photo: Bloomsbury India

The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing | Mira Jacob

Eyes wide shut

The meaning of the title of Indian American writer Mira Jacob’s debut novel is not quickly evident, nor is it as self-consciously eccentric as it seems at a glance.

Sleep—or rather, every imaginable disorder that can be caused by it—is at the heart of The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing. Apart from the act of sleepwalking itself, which leads to an unspeakable tragedy, we encounter in the characters instances of chronic insomnia and narcolepsy—a severe lack of sleep and a cloying excess of it, respectively—resulting in other life-altering disasters. Rarely does sleep feature in Jacob’s novel as a restorative—“the balm of hurt minds” that Macbeth, one of literature’s great insomniacs, had abjectly yearned for. And at its most brutal, if ironically also at its kindest, sleep graces the pages of this novel hand-in-hand with his mythical brother, Death, whose pale shadow lurks in the interstices of Jacob’s sun-kissed prose.

Set largely in New Mexico in the US, amid a close-knit community of Syrian Christians who had migrated from India in the 1960s, The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing qualifies as a textbook example of what the West fondly likes to call “immigrant fiction”, usually much to the chagrin of those who write it. Jacob, however, seems to draw on every cliché in the book with impunity—successfully reinventing them in a luminous novel, where the thinness of the plot is overridden by the effortless agility with which the story gallops on.

Told from the perspective of Amina—daughter of Thomas and Kamala Eapen, who moved from Salem, in Tamil Nadu, to Albuquerque, in the US, half a century ago—Jacob’s novel harks back to an illustrious line of stories on the Indian diaspora in North America. From Bharati Mukherjee’s prickly family dramas to the delicious rituals of cooking and eating in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novels to Jhumpa Lahiri’s hawk-eyed attention to everyday detail, a range of influences are brewed into a potent concoction in The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing, then blended with the comic energy of a Woody Allen movie and the tragic intensity of Arundhati Roy’s The God Of Small Things.

But regardless of its moorings in such an august tradition of storytelling, Jacob’s novel is distinguished by an easy yet involved voice, breezy and confident in its recounting of the lives of others, while also quick to tug at the reader’s emotions without trying too hard.

Jacob’s story explores the clash of inherited and acquired cultures, especially as it manifests itself in the turmoil between generations, in a manner that is tenderly realist yet sharply faithful to the workings of that most irrational force that keeps families together: love. For, in spite of chronicling the gradual disintegration of the Eapens since the death of Amina’s brilliant older brother Akhil in a freak accident, The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing is a robust celebration of love, in all its varieties—be it parental, platonic, or romantic—without ever falling prey to sentimentality or self-pity.

Mira Jacob’s novel is set amid a community of Syrian Christians in New Mexico,US. Photo: Bloomsbury India

Like all family sagas, the novel is also, necessarily, an exploration of cruelty, handed down the generations like an heirloom. One of the most powerful sections in the novel unfolds in Salem, where little Amina is terrorized by her Ammachy (“half grandmother, half wolf”), the dreaded matriarch of the family, bestowed with a singular talent for unkindness. Through chiselled dialogue, which often runs on for pages, Jacob insinuates a suppressed history of melancholia and mental disease in the Eapen family—both of which find a spectacular outburst, many decades later, in the “hot rage of words” that begin to tumble out of Thomas one day.

Amina, who is a professional photographer, has been a constant witness to the evolving fortunes of her extended family over the years. So it is no coincidence perhaps that Jacob imbues the novel with the nostalgic charm of a family album, making us skip through, or pause over, its 500-odd pages as we would do with the latter.

It is the camera, whose viewfinder she keeps training on people’s faces even as a young girl, which has given Amina an advantage over her emotionally volatile parents and peers. Gazing at the world from behind the safety of the lens, she can remain a distant observer—though not entirely aloof either. For even as a wedding photographer—a role in which Amina is required to recreate her clients’ fantasies, not depict the reality, according to her boss—she cannot stop herself from making images that are edgy, and sometimes outright compromising.

But if Amina is cold and calculating enough to capture the shot of a man throwing himself off a bridge, she is also strongly rooted in her ethics and values, which make her vulnerable to manipulation by parents, friends, lovers (there is, by the way, an entirely dispensable subplot about the story of this “falling man”). Although the lone voice of reason in a family plagued by deadly varieties of neurosis, she is open to the possibilities of the supernatural, especially when her neurosurgeon father, who is dying of a brain tumour, begins to converse with the long dead (in a story that is already riddled with spectral presences and far too many instances of bad parenting, a lengthy discussion on Hamlet, especially on the significance of the ghost in the play, in a middle-school classroom could also have been gainfully avoided).

As Thomas becomes increasingly absorbed in visitations from beyond the world of the living, Amina and her mother Kamala are tossed between bleak despair and utter disbelief—until the apparitions begin to manifest themselves before their sane eyes as well.

By collapsing the boundaries between the spiritual and sensual realms, by braiding desire with destiny, Jacob succeeds in deepening the scope of her story, opening up a path to guide her characters through life—walking in search of elusive rest or struggling to wake up before they are plunged into the Big Sleep.

Also Read: Excerpt | The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing

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