The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is one of those books that will stay with you for a while after you are done reading. The novel is well written, populated with a host of well-rounded characters that represent different cultures and points of views about the world without ever becoming caricatures. It proceeds at a steady pace and leaves you with the feeling of having lived a lifetime with the Eapen family.
Mira Jacob’s prose is fresh and feels absolutely real. As you read the book, you begin to feel like you know her, you know her family. You know those feelings and little tensions and big conflicts, those cold grudges, lies that people emotionally close tell each other knowing that they are lies. Her simple sentences bring an entire place or time alive in your mind—even if you haven’t been there or lived through it. There isn’t a single false knot in the book. It doesn’t feel jerky despite shifting from place to place and moving back and forth in time.
Early in the book when Amina, her brother Akhil, mother Kamala and father Thomas arrive in Kerala to stay with Amina’s paternal grandmother, uncle, aunt and cousin, the family’s history and elephant-in-the-room conflicts are revealed. From then on you are left wondering how these childhood memories of the protagonist fit in with her job and her life at the moment—which is the basic plot, but there is enough meat in the sub-plots. That is the mark of a skillful storyteller—to absorb the reader completely in the here and now. Mira Jacob clearly has that knack.
The author manages to capture a host of solid feelings—tensions within close friendships that survive despite differences, routines that every relationship falls into, dealing with aging parents while living your own life, family histories that we all only have vague, childhood memories of and that need to be dug out to understand the now.
The story progresses in Seattle, where Amina lives and works to Albuquerque, where her retired parents live, and Kerala where the family’s mysteries were created and where the past is still alive for them.
One of the book’s accomplishments is that it transcends being yet-another-immigrant-story and manages to be a story that both builds on the specifics of the various cultures, their clashing and maintains its family-drama universality. The novel explores what it means to be a family, to survive as an individual and as a group and touches upon grief, emotional turmoil, painting a convincing journey of self-forgiveness.
While the book deals with loss, disease, death and grief, it is not dismissive of the darker side of human emotions but leaves you with a kind of stoic, quiet hope. In short, this book will make you want to call your family and tell them that you love them. And that is no mean feat.