The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing: A Novel

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9780812994780: The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing: A Novel
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For fans of J. Courtney Sullivan, Meg Wolitzer, Mona Simpson, and Jhumpa Lahiri comes a winning, irreverent debut novel about a family wrestling with its future and its past.

With depth, heart, and agility, debut novelist Mira Jacob takes us on a deftly plotted journey that ranges from 1970s India to suburban 1980s New Mexico to Seattle during the boom. The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is an epic, irreverent testimony to the bonds of love, the pull of hope, and the power of making peace with life’s uncertainties.
Celebrated brain surgeon Thomas Eapen has been sitting on his porch, talking to dead relatives. At least that is the story his wife, Kamala, prone to exaggeration, tells their daughter, Amina, a photographer living in Seattle.
Reluctantly Amina returns home and finds a situation that is far more complicated than her mother let on, with roots in a trip the family, including Amina’s rebellious brother Akhil, took to India twenty years earlier. Confronted by Thomas’s unwillingness to explain himself, strange looks from the hospital staff, and a series of puzzling items buried in her mother’s garden, Amina soon realizes that the only way she can help her father is by coming to terms with her family’s painful past. In doing so, she must reckon with the ghosts that haunt all of the Eapens.
Praise for The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing
“With wit and a rich understanding of human foibles, Jacob unspools a story that will touch your heart.”—People
“Optimistic, unpretentious and refreshingly witty.”—Associated Press
“By turns hilarious and tender and always attuned to shifts of emotion . . . [Jacob’s] characters shimmer with life.”—Entertainment Weekly
“A rich, engrossing debut told with lightness and care.”The Kansas City Star
“[A] sprawling, poignant, often humorous novel . . . Told with humor and sympathy for its characters, the book serves as a bittersweet lesson in the binding power of family, even when we seek to break out from it.”O: The Oprah Magazine
“Moving forward and back in time, Jacob balances comedy and romance with indelible sorrow. . . . When her plot springs surprises, she lets them happen just as they do in life: blindsidingly right in the middle of things.”—The Boston Globe
“This is an effortlessly gorgeous and rich book. Its prose is lovely and precise, alternately luminous and direct; its observations of people and families and the physical world are poignant and a delight. The dialogue is sharp, funny, and true. This is a triumphant debut!”—Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir!
“Comparisons of Jacob to Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable; . . . both write with naked honesty about the uneasy generational divide among Indians in America and about family in all its permutations.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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About the Author:

Mira Jacob is the founder of Pete’s Reading Series in New York City and has an MFA from the New School for Social Research. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son. The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is her first novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

“Traitors! Cowards! Good-for-nothings!” Ammachy had yelled in 1979, finishing the conversation that would finish her relationship with her son, as Thomas would only come back to India to bury her.

But what a calamity! An abomination! Divorced from the mother and the motherland in one fell swoop? Who could have seen such a thing coming? Certainly not Amina, who by age eleven was well versed enough in tragedy (she had seen The Champ and Kramer vs. Kramer) to understand that it came with tinkling music and bad weather.

And what was there to fear from the sunlight that dappled the Salem train station the morning of their arrival, making everything—the packed luggage and the red-shirted coolies and even the beggars—seem sweet and full of promise? Nothing, Amina thought, stepping down onto the platform and into the funk of other people’s armpits. Plump arms sheathed in sari blouses brushed her cheeks, chai-wallahs shouted into car windows, and a coolie reached impatiently for bags she was not carrying. Somewhere above the din she heard someone calling her father’s name.

“Over there, Dad,” Akhil said, pointing at something Amina couldn’t see, and Thomas gripped her by the shoulders and propelled her forward.

“Babu!” He clapped an old man on the back. “Good to see you!”

Wrapped in a bulky dhobi and skinny as ever, Babu smiled a toothless smile, his resemblance to a malnourished baby belying his ability to toss large objects onto his head and carry them through crowds, as he did with all four of the family suitcases. Outside the station, Preetham, the driver, loaded the freshly polished Ambassador, while beggars surrounded them, pointing to the children’s sneakers and then to their own hungry mouths, as if their appetites could be satisfied by Nikes.

“Ami, come!” Kamala called, opening the car door, and once everyone else had taken their places (Preetham and Thomas in the front seat, Akhil, Kamala, and Amina in the back, Babu standing proudly on the back fender), they began the four-block ride home.

Unlike the rest of the family, Thomas’s parents had long ago left Kerala for the drier plains of Tamil Nadu. Settling in a large house at the edge of town, Ammachy and Appachen had opened a combined clinic (she was an ophthalmologist; he was an ENT), and before his sudden death by heart attack at the age of forty-five, they saw 70 percent of the heads in Salem.

“A golden time,” Ammachy would spit at anyone within distance, going on to list everything since that had disappointed her. Top of her list: her eldest son choosing to marry “the darkie” and move to America when she had arranged for him to marry Kamala’s much lighter cousin and live in Madras; her youngest son becoming a dentist producing “the no-brains” instead of becoming a doctor and producing another doctor; the many movie theaters and hospitals that had since sprung up around the house, penetrating it with noise and smells.

“Bloody Christ,” Thomas breathed as they turned onto Tamarind Road, and Amina followed his gaze. “You can’t even see the house anymore!”

This was true. It was also true that what could be seen, or rather, what could not be ignored, was the Wall, Ammachy’s solution to the changing world around her. Built of plaster and broken bottles, the Wall grew crooked and taller and more yellowed with every visit, until it resembled nothing as much as a set of monster’s dentures fallen from some other world and forgotten on the dusty side of the thoroughfare.

“It’s not so bad,” Kamala said unconvincingly.

“It’s creepy,” Akhil said.

“New gate!” Preetham beeped the horn, and the family fell silent as the gate swung open from the inside, pulling the car and its contents down the driveway.

The house, for its part, had not changed at all, its two stories painted pink and yellow and slanting in the heat like a melting birthday cake. A small crowd had gathered in front of it, and Amina watched them through the window—Sunil Uncle, dark and paunchy; his wife, the wheatish and wimpy Divya Auntie; their son, Itty, head weaving from side to side like a skinny Stevie Wonder; Mary-the-Cook, the cook; and two new servant girls. Christmas lights and tinsel twinkled in the pomegranate trees.

“Mikhil! Mittack!” Itty gurgled as the car pulled in, arm hooking frantically into the air. He had grown as tall as Sunil since their last visit, and Amina waved back, full of dread. Mittack was her name, according to Itty, and excitability was the condition that made him bite her on occasion, according to the family. Amina fingered the faint half-moon on her forearm, sinking a little in her seat.

“Hullohullohullo!” Sunil shouted as the car parked. “Welcome, welcome!”

“Hey, Sunil.” Thomas opened the door, taking long strides across the lawn to shake hands. “Good to see you.”

This was a lie, of course, as neither of the brothers was ever particularly glad to see the other, but it was the only way to properly start a visit.

Sunil fixed a blazing smile on Kamala. “Lovely as a rose, my dear!” He bestowed cologney kisses on her cheek and then Amina’s before turning and clutching his heart. “And who is this ruddy tiger? My God, Akhil? Is that you? Blossoming into a king of the jungle, are we?”

“I guess,” Akhil sighed.

Suddenly, two hands wrapped around Amina’s neck and squeezed hard, crushing her larynx. She pulled frantically at them, dimly aware of her mother patting Divya’s arm in greeting, of the hot breath in her ear.

“Mittack!” Itty let go, patting her head.

“Jesus!” Amina gasped, tears in her eyes. “Mom!”

“Itty.” Kamala smiled. She wrapped her arms around the boy, who grunted and buried his face in her neck.

“Hello.” Divya stood in front of Amina, slight, pockmarked, and branded with the expression of someone expecting the worst. “How was the train?”

“It was nice.” Amina loved the overnight train from Madras. She loved the call of the chai-wallahs at every stop, the smell of different dinners cooking in the towns they passed. “We got egg sandwiches.”

Divya nodded. “You’re feeling sick now?”


“Sick!” A voice snapped from behind Divya. “Already? Which one?”

Beneath the heat and the house and the blinking lights, Ammachy sat in her wicker chair on the verandah, sweating rings into a sea-foam-green sari blouse. The two years that had passed since their last visit had done nothing to soften her face. Long white whiskers grew out of her chin, and her spine, hunched by decades of complaint, left her head floating some inches above her lap.

“Hello, Amma.” Thomas’s fingers were firm on Amina and Akhil’s necks as he marched them up the few stairs to where she sat. “Good to see you.”

Ammachy pointed to the roll of flesh that pressed at the hem of Akhil’s polo shirt. “Thuddya. What kind of girlish hips are you growing?”

“Hi, Ammachy.” Akhil leaned in to kiss her cheek.

She turned to Amina with a wince. “Ach. I sent some Fair and Lovely, no? Didn’t use it?”

“She’s fine, Amma,” Thomas said, but as Amina bent to kiss her, Ammachy snatched her face, pinning it between curled fingers.

“You will have to be very clever if you are never going to be pretty. Are you very clever?”

Amina stared at her grandmother, unsure of what to say. She had never thought of herself as particularly clever. She had never thought of herself as particularly bad-looking either, though it was obvious enough now from the faint repulsion that rippled through the hairs on Ammachy’s lip.

“Amina won the all-city spelling bee,” Kamala announced, pushing Amina’s head forward so that her lips landed openly against Ammachy’s cheek. She had just enough time to be surprised by the taste of menthol and roses, and then she was pulled into the too-dark house and down the hallway, past Sunil and Divya and Itty and Ammachy’s rooms, to a dining room set with tea.

“So train was crowded? Nothing to eat? She’s so happy to see you.” Divya motioned for Kamala and the kids to sit and pushed a plate of orange sweets at them. “She’s been talking of nothing else for a month.”

“Itty,” Sunil boomed, dragging a lumpy suitcase in behind him. “Your uncle is insisting we see what presents he has brought. Shall we take a look?”

“Hullo?” Itty nodded vigorously. “Look? Look?”

“It’s nothing, really.” Thomas took a seat next to Amina.

“Small-small things,” Kamala added.

Ammachy limped in with a scowl. “What is all this nonsense?”

It was: two pairs of Levi’s, one bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, three bags of nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios), a pair of Reeboks with Velcro closures, a larger pair of hiking boots, two bottles of perfume (Anaïs Anaïs, Chloé), four cassette tapes (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Kenny Rogers, Exile), two jars of Avon scented skin lotion (in Topaze and Unspoken), several pairs of white tube socks, talcum powder, and a candy-cane-shaped tube filled with marshmallow, root beer float, and peppermint flavored lip balms.

“It’s too much.” Sunil tried to hand back the cassette tapes. “Really, we don’t need.”

“What need?” Thomas smiled, watching Divya sink her finger into the jar of Avon cream. “It’s nice to have is all. What do you think, Itty? You like the Velcro?”

Crouched in a Spider-Man pose on the floor, Itty lunged slowly from side to side, mesmerized by the sight of his poufy white feet.

“You’ll spoil him.” Sunil reached for the scotch bottle, holding it up to the light and studying the label. “Shall we try a bit of this?”

“After dinner,” Thomas said, and Sunil poured two fingers into his empty teacup, sniffing it.

“The Velcro is big thing in the States now,” Kamala explained to everyone with a knowing look. “Easy peasy, instead of having to tie the shoes.”

Ammachy snorted. “Who else besides this no-brains won’t know to tie shoes?”

“Vel cow!” Itty shouted with unfortunate timing, fastening and unfastening his Reeboks until Ammachy smacked him with a powdered palm. She sniffed at all three flavors of lip balm and licked the tip of one before pushing them into Divya’s pile.

“So, you people had a good trip in the airplane?” Ammachy asked.

Thomas nodded. “Good enough.”

“How did you come?”

“San Francisco–-Honolulu–-Taiwan–-Singapore.”

Ammachy grunted. “Singapore Airlines?”


“Those girls are pretty, no?” She refilled Kamala’s cup, saying, “Nice complexions.”

“Try the hiking boots, Sunil.” Thomas pointed to them with his chin. “The heel itself has shock absorbers!”

“Later. I have some work I should be attending to.”

“Oh, yes, this one with his people’s practice.” Ammachy rolled her eyes. “You would think he was actually saving lives instead of teeth.”

“Teeth are lives, Amma,” Sunil said, glowering. “People need to eat to live.”

“So, who all do you want to see?” she asked Thomas.

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it yet.”

“Yes, well, your old classmate Yohan Varghese was asking about you the other day. I told you the wife died, no? Not that she was any real help, stupid thing, but two sons to raise on his own! Ach. And we should see Saramma Kochamma of course, just for one afternoon meal. And Dr. Abraham wants to talk to you. He’s putting together that rehabilitative center, the one I told you about? Might be a nice thing to see.” This last news was delivered with such practiced indifference that even Amina felt embarrassed.

Thomas reached for a jalebi. He offered the plate to Amina, who shook her head.

“Anyway, he needs someone in head injuries, so I told him you would ring.” Ammachy poured milk into her own tea and stirred. “Maybe tomorrow?”

“It’s not really my field.” Thomas took a bite. “They would only ever need the occasional surgery.”

“Well, no one asked you to become a brain surgeon,” Ammachy snapped.

“No,” Thomas said, chewing carefully, “they didn’t.”

Akhil reached for a jalebi, and Ammachy swatted his hand away.

“It’s just an option.” Ammachy scraped something from the oilcloth. “But then I suppose Kamala likes it there? All of this women’s- libbing and bra burning?”

“What?” Kamala sat up a little taller in her chair.

“I’m sure it’s why she was so excited to go in the first place. Always wanting more and more of freedoms, is it?”

“Who burns the bras?” Kamala asked indignantly.

“How should I know?” Ammachy glared. “You’re the one who chooses to live in there. Godforsaken place.”

I’m the one?”

“Who else? If you wanted to come home, Thomas would come. Men only go as far as the wife allows.”

“Is that so?” Kamala leaned across the table. “Well, that’s very interesting, isn’t it, Thomas?”

“Amma, please. We’ve only just arrived.”

“What’s foreskin?” Amina asked. Everyone looked at her.

“God’s foreskin place?” Amina repeated, and Akhil kicked her shin under the table. “Ouch!”

“What is this child saying?” Ammachy’s face was rigid.

“Time for naps!” Kamala pointed toward the stairs. “Go. You are overtired.”

“But it’s the middle of the day!” Akhil protested. “We just got here.”

“Jet lags! You’ll be cranky tomorrow if you don’t get some rest. Go!” Kamala stood up and ushered them to the base of the stairs, Itty hot on her heels. “Itty, you stay with us, oka...

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