By Abeer Hoque
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is Mira Jacob’s debut novel about an immigrant South Asian girl growing up with feet in two worlds, reluctantly tied to the old country, inexorably to the new. It’s the book I’ve been wanting to read for years.
The protagonist Amina is a Christian South Indian American immigrant who grows up in Albuquerque with her teen-angst brother, a madcap mother, and a surgeon father. The setting reaches from India to New Mexico to Seattle, interleaving dreamy and deadly pasts and presents. Amina grows up to be a talented photographer, and the heart and grief of the story slowly reveals itself when she returns home after her father starts experiencing hallucinations.
As Jacob puts it in an interview, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is about “what it means, as an immigrant, to make a life in a stolen country.” The novel is just as much or maybe more so a story about families, about illness and loss and what happens to relationships between lovers and parents and children alike. I wouldn’t have minded if it had been more of the former than the latter themes because there’s precious little representation of our brown communities in American literature. But I also appreciated how the story transformed itself into something anyone might relate to.
The supporting characters struggled at times to transcend stereotype (the rebellious friend, the strident uncle, the manipulative mother), but the occasional flatness was perhaps related to the limited space devoted to them. When a character was given more time in the novel, they clarified into complete people with particular and resonant characteristics. There were perhaps too many people to give each their due, but at the same time, that chaotic clichéd community rings true, at least with the South Asian Americans I know. Another criticism was the description of the aunties with their “thick meatish” bodies (a troubling and repeated depiction) and bright saris and stupendous cooking. I know it is all often true, but it sometimes felt mango-breasty (my term for exotified Desi writing).
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the writing in The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. Jacob has a way with words and her wit is both humorous and psychologically complex. It’s hard to give a good example because often the cleverness was often situational and took more than a sentence to unfold, but here’s one:
”Remember that night at the dance,” he asked. “You looked so hot.”
Amina smiled in the dark, deeply pleased in a way that made it seem like feminism had never existed.
The interleaved structure of the novel was also extremely effective and created an inexorable forward motion even when it was flashing back.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is compelling and breezy despite its tragic themes and a welcome and essential addition to the canon of now. It’s also an astoundingly accomplished debut, and I’m looking forward to more.
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing
Random House Trade Paperbacks