The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing: A Novel

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Overview

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 dot.com boom. The ...
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Overview

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 dot.com 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, [Mira] Jacob unspools a story that will touch your heart.”—People
 
“[A] sprawling, poignant, often humorous novel that’s worth missing cocktails on the deck in order to finish a chapter . . . 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

“This debut novel so fully envelops the reader in the soul of an Indian-American immigrant family that it's heart-wrenching to part with them. . . . Thanks to Jacob’s captivating voice, which is by turns hilarious and tender and always attuned to shifts of emotion, her characters shimmer with life. [Grade:] A-”Entertainment Weekly
 
“Jacob’s novel is light and optimistic, unpretentious and refreshingly witty. Jacob has created characters with evident care and treats them with gentleness even as they fight viciously with each other. Her prose is sharp and true and deeply funny. . . . This is the literary fiction I will be recommending to everyone this summer, especially those who love multigenerational, multicultural family sagas.”—Associated Press
 
“Comparisons of Jacob to Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable; Lahiri may be more overtly profound, Jacob more willing to go for comedy, but 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)
 
“[Mira Jacob] has a wonderful flair for recreating the messy sprawl of family life, with all its joy, sadness, frustration, and anger.”Publishers Weekly

“Mira Jacob makes a resounding entrance onto the literary stage with her first novel. . . . It’s a bold debut with a powerful pulsing heart in which Jacob freshly captures the complexities of the Indian immigrant experience.”Bustle

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

"[An] enormously bountiful debut" is how Publisher's Weekly described Mira Jacob's multigenerational novel about an Indian-American family wrestling on two continents with its past and its future. The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing justifies that praise with its finely etched portrayals of the Eapens: brain surgeon Thomas; his strong-willed wife Kamala; and their photographer daughter Amina. Ranging from India in the seventies to New Mexico in the eighties to Seattle in the novels, the fiction sustains its focus even as it captures the pushes-and-tugs and internal crises of three very different people.

Publishers Weekly
03/17/2014
Toggling back and forth between the early 1980s and late 1990s, Jacob’s emotionally bountiful debut immerses us in the lives of Amina Eapen and her extended Indian-American family, who have lived in Albuquerque, N.Mex., since the late 1960s. In 1998, Amina, then age 30, works as a wedding photographer, having given up a promising photojournalism career after a single picture—a photo of a Native American activist jumping off a bridge—made her notorious. She moved to Seattle to distance herself from her overbearing parents, Kamala and Thomas, but returns home after learning that Thomas, a surgeon, has begun acting strangely. She plans to make it a short trip but decides to stay after her father is diagnosed with a brain tumor. This extended visit forces Amina to confront anew the death of her older brother Akhil, who committed suicide as a teenager, and to rekindle her romance with Jamie Anderson, whose sister was Akhil’s girlfriend. The author has a wonderful flair for recreating the messy sprawl of family life, with all its joy, sadness, frustration, and anger. Although overlong, the novel, through its lovingly created and keenly observed characters, makes something new of the Indian immigrant experience in America. Agent: Michelle Tessler, Tessler Literary Agency. (July)
From the Publisher
“[A] sprawling, poignant, often humorous novel that’s worth missing cocktails on the deck in order to finish a chapter . . . 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

“With wit and a rich understanding of human foibles, [Mira] Jacob unspools a story that will touch your heart.”—People
 
“This debut novel so fully envelops the reader in the soul of an Indian-American immigrant family that it's heart-wrenching to part with them. . . . Thanks to Jacob’s captivating voice, which is by turns hilarious and tender and always attuned to shifts of emotion, her characters shimmer with life. [Grade:] A-”Entertainment Weekly
 
“Jacob’s novel is light and optimistic, unpretentious and refreshingly witty. Jacob has created characters with evident care and treats them with gentleness even as they fight viciously with each other. Her prose is sharp and true and deeply funny. . . . This is the literary fiction I will be recommending to everyone this summer, especially those who love multigenerational, multicultural family sagas.”—Associated Press
 
“Comparisons of Jacob to Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable; Lahiri may be more overtly profound, Jacob more willing to go for comedy, but 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)
 
“[Mira Jacob] has a wonderful flair for recreating the messy sprawl of family life, with all its joy, sadness, frustration, and anger.”Publishers Weekly
 
“Jacob’s writing is refreshing, and she excels at creating a powerful bond between the reader and her characters, all wonderfully drawn and with idiosyncratic natures—the mother, Kamala, for instance, is a born-again Christian—that make them enchanting. Recommended for those who like engaging fiction that succeeds in addressing serious issues with some humor.”Library Journal
 
“Mira Jacob is one of those writers who lives so deeply inside everything that it is to be human and whose eye and ear for perfect details will make you laugh and nod and cry and just feel the feels like a giant breathless wallop to your heart.”Hello Giggles
 
“Debut novelist Mira Jacob weaves a complex, layered saga of the immigrant experience, deftly illuminating the Eapens’ ambivalence toward their homeland. . . . Heartbreaking and often surprisingly funny, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is a testament to the deep bonds of family and the importance of gaining the courage to move on.”Shelf Awareness
 
“Mira Jacob makes a resounding entrance onto the literary stage with her first novel. . . . It’s a bold debut with a powerful pulsing heart in which Jacob freshly captures the complexities of the Indian immigrant experience.”Bustle
 
“A memorable and dramatic portrait of a family in flux.”Booklist

“Punchy, clever, and stuffed with delicious chapatis, Mira Jacob’s first novel jumps effortlessly from India to the States, creating a vibrant portrait of a world in flux.”—Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure
 
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing seizes the reader early and never lets go. Its electricities reside in Mira Jacob’s acute details and the sadness, anger, and humor of her characters. This novel tells many wonderful stories while also telling, beautifully, the story that counts the most.”—Sam Lipsyte, author of The Fun Parts
 
“Mira Jacob has written an utterly dazzling, epic debut. The story of an Indian American family is at once completely relatable and totally fresh. A beautifully timed novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is intricately woven and sparklingly played out, and it triumphs. I did not want this breathtaking book to end.”—Julie Klam, author of Friendkeeping
 
“I read this in one sitting. I couldn’t have stopped—wouldn’t even have noticed—if my house had caught fire. Mira Jacob is a born storyteller and a fantastic writer. The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is a truly great book.”—Abigail Thomas, author of A Three Dog Life
 
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is a time-traveling multigenerational saga that still remains intimate in its feel and central focus. For all of its witty and loving attention to the power of familial bonds, it is most eloquent on the subject of a grief so profound that its everyday weight pulls the grievers closer to the dead than to the living. And yet the overall effect, miraculously, is celebratory.”—Jim Shepard, author of You Think That’s Bad
 
The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing 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!
 
“What a thrill to discover Mira Jacob, a warm, witty new voice in American fiction. The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing is both rich and wise. I savored every page.”—Amanda Eyre Ward, author of How to Be Lost

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-05-07
Jacob's darkly comic debut—about a photographer's visit to her parents' New Mexico home during a family crisis—is grounded in the specifics of the middle-class Indian immigrant experience while uncovering the universality of family dysfunction and endurance.Amina Eapen was born in New Mexico, but her older brother, Akhil, was born in India before the family moved to America. Amina and Akhil chafed against their parents' evident unhappiness—their mother, Kamala, clung to impossible dreams of returning to India; their father, Thomas, disappeared into his medical practice—while also enjoying the extended Christian Indian community to which the Eapens have always belonged. Now in her mid-30s and unmarried, Amina is working as a wedding photographer in Seattle, having dropped her career in photojournalism after a picture she took of a suicide went viral. Then Kamala, who has become a Baptist, manipulates Amina into a visit by claiming Thomas is acting strangely. Amina arrives in New Mexico reluctant but soon realizes that something may actually be wrong with her father; not only is he talking to dead relatives on the front porch, but he's exhibiting odd behavior at work. By the time Thomas is diagnosed with a physical disease, Amina is feeling a bit haunted by the past herself—she can't escape from memories of growing up with the gifted but troubled Akhil, whose death as a high school senior was a blow from which no one in the family has recovered. Amina also finds a lover she avoids introducing to her parents for good reason: He's the brother of Akhil's high school sweetheart, and he isn't Indian. Amina's romance, as well as mouthwatering descriptions of Kamala's cooking, leavens but does not diminish the Eapens' family tragedy.Comparisons of Jacob to Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable; Lahiri may be more overtly profound, Jacob more willing to go for comedy, but both write with naked honesty about the uneasy generational divide among Indians in America and about family in all its permutations.
Library Journal
06/01/2014
In this strong debut novel, grief has haunted the Eapen family since their move from India to the United States in the late 1960s. Now, in the late 1990s, Amina Eapen is called back from Seattle to her parents' home in New Mexico to deal with her brain surgeon father's presumably delusional dialog with dead relatives, and the family's grief powers to the forefront. As the poignant yet witty and irreverent story unfolds, Amina seeks to disentangle fact from fiction, especially regarding the suicide of her precocious brother, Akhil. Ultimately, the Eapens must relive their past in order to face a troubling future. VERDICT Jacob's writing is refreshing, and she excels at creating a powerful bond between the reader and her characters, all wonderfully drawn and with idiosyncratic natures—the mother, Kamala, for instance, is a born-again Christian—that make them enchanting. Recommended for those who like engaging fiction that succeeds in addressing serious issues with some humor. [See Prepub Alert, 1/10/14.]—Faye Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812994780
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/1/2014
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 864
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet 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.
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Read an Excerpt

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?”

“No.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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, okay? Your cousins need to sleep.”

“Hullo? Cricket?” Itty asked, and Kamala shook her head.

“Not now. They need to sleep. You stay with me.”

“Good job,” Akhil growled as they left the table and dragged themselves upstairs. “Now we’re going to sit up there in the heat forever.”

“What’s God’s—” Amina asked.

Forsaken, dope. It means abandoned.”

“Oh.” It was getting hotter with every step. Amina’s legs felt curiously heavy, as if they were already taking a nap. “God abandoned America?”

“Probably.” Akhil opened the door to the bedroom they shared and flipped the fan onto high, sending a small cloud of mosquitoes in all directions. “Ammachy thinks so.”

“Does Dad think so?”

“No, stupid. Dad likes it. That’s what they were fighting about.”

“They were fighting?”

“What did you think that was? What do you think it is every time we’re here? Ammachy wants Dad to move back. Dad doesn’t want to move back. Ammachy gets mad at Mom about it. Classic immigrant dysfunction, duh.”

“Yeah, I know, duh,” Amina said, annoyed that she didn’t. Akhil was such a know-it-all when it came to India, like he was some big expert just because he was three years older than her and he’d been born there instead of in the States, like she had. She lifted the mosquito netting at the edge of one of the twin beds and climbed under. “But Mom wants to move back, too.”

“So?” Akhil fell back onto the bed next to hers.

“So why does Ammachy get mad at her?”

Akhil thought it over for a minute, then shrugged. “Because she doesn’t want to get mad at Dad.”

“Oh.” Amina’s head sank into the pillow. “Do you want to move back?”

“No! India sucks.”

Amina was relieved. This much even she knew. She shut her eyes, surprised by how quickly the blackness of sleep rose up to greet her, swift and persuasive as candor.

“She’s half grandmother, half wolf, you know,” Akhil whispered a few seconds later, and already half dreaming, she took it to be truth in the way unfathomable things can be. She had seen the cool lupine glow in her grandmother’s eyes, her arthritic hands curled into paws. In the days that followed, her hand would instinctively cover her throat whenever Ammachy looked directly at her.

Where was everybody? The deep blue of evening shadowed Akhil’s empty bed as Amina opened her eyes. She rose, letting the pressure in her head settle before shoving her feet into her chappals and walking across the hallway to her parents’ room.

“Mom?”

Inside, Kamala shoved clothes into a dark dresser. She glanced up as Amina walked in. “Oh, good. You need to wake up so you can go to sleep on time.”

“Where is everyone?”

“Daddy and Sunil and all have gone to see the neighbors.”

“Where’s Akhil?”

“In the kitchen.”

Amina blinked against the dry air, feeling vaguely sick. “My head hurts.”

Instantly Kamala was next to her, with a hand on her forehead. “You drank some water?”

“No.” The water in Salem tasted like hot nickels. Amina tried to use it only when brushing her teeth.

“Go downstairs and get some right now.”

Amina groaned.

“No! None of this Miss Needed an Enema Last Time.”

“Mom.”

“You want it again? Four days no pooping?”

“Fine! Fine! Going!”

The sun had already set behind the Wall as Amina shuffled through the shadowed yard, toward the kitchen. The taller of the servant girls smacked a coconut against the cement, staring at her as she walked by. Amina waved and then pretended she hadn’t when the girl did not wave back.

“Fingers out of the ghee, or I will chop them off!” Mary-the-Cook was shouting as Amina entered the kitchen. “How many times do I tell you this? Ah! The little one is awake now! What is it, koche? You want some bread and sugar?”

“Mom says I need water.”

“Good, good.” Black as a tire and perpetually struggling under the weight of her pillow-sized breasts, Mary-the-Cook was the exact same age as Ammachy, a fact that had been made incredible by the way time had expanded her body in the exact places it had contracted Ammachy’s. The result was a face smoothed of any wrinkles, a body that moved like a jogging meatball. “Waterwaterwater. All week I have been making the water for you people! You remember last time, nah? Four days and still you couldn’t—”

“I know, I know.” Amina took the cup Mary-the-Cook offered. “What’s for dinner?”

“Biryani.” The cook nodded triumphantly to a bloody chicken carcass resting on the counter. “And maybe a little bit of this fool if he keeps talking such nonsense.”

“It’s not nonsense,” Akhil said. “Anyway, how do you know? It’s not like you were at tea with us.”

“At tea? At tea? I have myself been working at this house since this boy’s father was six years old only, and he thinks I have to be at tea to know what goes on?”

“I’m just saying Ammachy was pissed at him again. It’s like she can’t even look at him.”

“Pist?”

“Angry. It means angry.”

“Nobody is angry! Too much of love is all! All these years Amma works and works to send Thomas to school, and then he goes and marries your dusky mother and studies in America and what? Nothing!” For reasons unclear to anyone, Mary-the-Cook had always been Ammachy’s strongest ally, regularly citing Ammachy’s teaching her English as evidence of a kindness that no one else had seen. “Like every other so-and-so from here to Bombay, this boy runs off and works and works and does not come home! What is she supposed to do?”

“She could move to the States,” Akhil said.

“Don’t be an idiot! What move? She’s too old.” Mary frowned. “Besides, it’s the children’s duty, everyone knows. And she is getting old! What if something happens?”

“She’s got Sunil Uncle.”

Mary-the-Cook snorted. “That one is a miserable good-for-nothing. It’s a miracle she lets him live here at all! Shouting at everybody, sleepwalking like some baby elephant, always unhappy!”

“Wait, what?” Akhil’s eyes widened.

“Sunil Uncle sleepwalks?” Amina had only ever seen Scooby-Doo sleepwalk. She didn’t know real people could do it.

Mary-the-Cook frowned. “Not important. Akhil, hand me an onion.”

“Where does he go?” Amina imagined Sunil Uncle in the kitchen, making himself a six-foot-long hoagie.

“Akhil! Onion!”

Akhil reached into the basket behind him. “Seriously? All the time? Like, every night?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Mary-the-Cook said. “I am only saying that Thomas should be coming home. If he waits any longer, it will be too late.”

“Have you tried to wake him up?” Akhil asked. “Because that’s dangerous, you know. He could attack.”

“Waking him? What fool would try to wake him? We are too busy trying to keep our own selves safe from harm.”

“He hurts you?”

“Not me, things. He hurts things only.”

“What things?”

“Things he himself has bought! The china for Amma’s sixtieth birthday. That television set—you remember? Smashed like one cheap toy. The dentistry chair with its three reclining positions and the overhanging lamp.”

Akhil’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know he’s sleepwalking?”

“What fool will break things he himself has saved up so long to buy? He’s not Thomas, he can’t be breaking and buying new all the time. And you should see how he cries over it the next day!”

“Wow.” Akhil looked impressed. “Psycho.”

“Psycho,” Mary-the-Cook agreed, shearing the ends off the onion with a rusty blade.

“Well,” Akhil said after a pause. “Dad always says Sunil Uncle didn’t want to live here or be a dentist, that Ammachy forced him when he didn’t get into medical school. Maybe he’s doing it to—”

“Are you even listening?” Mary-the-Cook asked. “He’s not doing anything, he’s sleeping!”

“I mean subconsciously, duh.” Akhil rolled his eyes.

“Sub?”

“You know, like what he wishes he could do while he was awake but can’t.”

“And what exactly is that?” Ammachy’s voice, sharp as a blade, pierced through the darkened doorway. She materialized an instant later, curled like a shrimp, her eyes fixed furiously on Mary-the-Cook.

“Oh, hi, Ammachy.” Akhil smiled bravely. “We were just—”

“I thought I told you to stay out of the kitchen.” Her teeth glinted in the bad light.

“We just came for water. OW!” Akhil yelped as his grandmother grabbed a handful of his chub.

“If I catch you in here again, I will beat you with a stick. Understand?”

What wasn’t there to understand? Amina made hastily for the door, Akhil coming up behind her. He pushed her out, and they both skittered across the darkened yard, careening around a pile of coconuts and through the pomegranate trees before running up the verandah steps. Only when they were safely at the top did they dare look back at the kitchen, where Ammachy shouted a storm of Tamil at Mary-the-Cook, who minced the onion with shamed gusto.

“Jesus!” Akhil glowered. “What was she . . . spying? She spies on us now?”

“She spied on us last time, too, remember?” Amina reminded him. “She spies on everyone, all the time. Anyway, you shouldn’t have said that about Sunil Uncle.”

“Why not? Everyone knows he’s been unhappy for, like, years. Even Dad says he should have gotten out of Salem a long time ago, when he had the chance.” Akhil rubbed his waist where he had been pinched. “So the truth hurts! Fuck her!”

“Fuck her!” Itty shouted from behind them, and Amina screamed. Her cousin’s white sneakers glowed as he unfolded himself from behind Ammachy’s chair. He looked at them expectantly. “Cricket?”

“It’s too dark,” Akhil said, and Itty’s face sank. It seemed to Amina that her cousin waited the entire two years between their visits peering anxiously at the gate with ball in hand.

“We’ll play tomorrow,” Amina promised, and Itty nodded miserably.

“Hullo? Roof?” he tried, a close second in favorite activities.

“Nah,” Akhil said.

“I’ll go with you,” Amina said.

Minutes later the two of them stepped off the upstairs verandah to the tiny ledge, climbing the ladder that would take them up to the roof. There, with the last burn of the sunset on the horizon and smoke from dinnertime fires growing, Amina could finally see over the Wall. The thoroughfare was clogged with its usual stagnating life, sluggish buses and cars honking in steady lines while rickshaws and bikes ran around them like beetles. The beggar children from the morning had scattered across the street, approaching any vehicle that slowed down long enough for them to get a hand through the window. Amina breathed in deep, sucking down the smell of gasoline and cooking onions, of cow dung and sewage and sweat, and Itty hummed to himself. Amina watched him watching Salem until it was too dark to see much of anything, and held the hand he offered to lead her back down into the safety of her bedroom.

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Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Mira Jacob

We love Mira Jacob's debut novel, The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing.

Dazzling and irreverent, witty and profound, this is a family saga of the most engaging kind: heartbreaking, hopeful, and alive on the page — which is why we had to make it one of our Summer 2014 Discover Great New Writers selections. The Anglo-Indian story of the Eapen family cuts across decades — beginning in 1970s India, through the 1980s in Albuquerque, to Seattle in the '90s — as they wrestle with their futures and make peace with their shared past. Readers will undoubtedly be reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri's work, but we'll also suggest you read A Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing if you loved the insight and humor of J. Courtney Sullivan's Maine, Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation, or Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette.

Here's Mira Jacob on storyboarding plot, finding her characters, her "brilliant writers I should have known about earlier moment,"and more for the Barnes & Noble Review. —Miwa Messer

Was there any specific person or event from your own life that influenced this novel?

I started this book with the vague notion that it was going to be about a man, a father, receding from his reality in some way. The father I had originally written was quite different from my own for the obvious reason that I was writing a novel, not a memoir, and I was of the firm mind that keeping characters fictional is what allows writers to grow and breathe with them, to let them surprise us, and to take the story in places we can't anticipate. Then, four years into writing the book, my own father started dying from renal cancer. I couldn't even look at the book in those years — it felt too cursed. I was also barely functional, as maybe all people are when they are watching someone they love die slowly and painfully.

A year after my father died, I went back to the book and did something I was sure was nuts: I ripped out the old father and put in mine. It was the strangest sort of surgery, because the events in the book didn't happen to my father, but there he was on every page, answering for them as if they had. He had a different wife, a different son, a different daughter (Kamala, Akhil, and Amina are wholly fictional) and yet he was so perfectly himself, with his mannerisms and faults and generosities, that I felt like I was getting to see him alive again.

Why did you decide to tell the story in chapters with alternating timelines?

I didn't originally — that solution only came up after I was told by a few trusted readers that the high school section (which came as one big chunk in the middle of the book) wasn't working. It was killing the momentum. Some even suggested I kill it altogether, which was heartbreaking to me. (I'm generally not so precious with my writing — I killed another 250 pages of the book without a backward glance, but this just felt different.) In my mind, the two stories were simultaneously unwinding mysteries that somehow needed to play off of each other, I just wasn't sure how. My husband [documentary filmmaker Jed Rothstein] listened to me worrying about this aloud one day and said, "You should storyboard the plot." I had never done that before, so he gave me a basic primer and afterward I went and bought a bunch of colored notecards and went at it like a woman possessed. It was terrifying, exhilarating, and in the end, really, really fun.

In writing The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, tell us what you found effortless to write about and what you found to be the most difficult to write about.

Effortless: Kamala. I have no idea where she came from but once she arrived, she dictated everything else that happened around her. And she was completely inflexible! I would have a nice intellectual conversation with myself about how a scene should go and then Kamala would show up with her own list of demands and her strange, fraught heart. And I would just do whatever she said.

Difficult: Romantic love. For me, it's like writing about a sunset. Yes, it's beautiful, but who needs me to tell them that?

Photography plays a large role in the protagonist's life. Why have you chosen to make photography a central art form and theme for the novel?

Photography is an act that is equal parts passive and active. You're the watcher, the stalker, the conduit, the medium. The one thing standing between what is seen and what will slip by unnoticed. So it's the perfect outlet for a girl whose helplessness over the past, whose guilt and anger and fear have held her in suspended animation for years. It's the place her particular brand of aggression can flourish.

Whom have you discovered recently?

I am having the great joy of reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah right now. I love it so much I have rationed the pages. Then I am on Okie Ndibe's Foreign Gods Inc., of which I've read the first chapter and cannot wait to continue. I suppose some would say I am having a Nigerian moment, except that I am actually having a "brilliant writers I should have known about earlier" moment. - —July 11, 2014

Miwa Messer is the director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The book starts in India, but doesn’t go back. Why do you think the author chose to open the book there?

2. Why do you think Amina was unhinged by taking the picture of Bobby McCloud? Do you believe her own explanation?

3. What do you think compelled Amina to photograph the worst moments at the wedding?

4. Sanji is presented as different than the rest of the adults in the Albuquerque “family.” What might make her different and why?

5. Kamala is a very polarizing character in the book. Were you drawn to or repelled by her? How do you think the author feels about her?

6. Kamala and Amina seem at odds most of the time, but what traits do they have in common?

7. Amina uses the camera to express herself. Kamala uses her cooking. Is there anything that you use (cooking, art, music, work) to connect to your world and the people in your life?

8. Akhil is angry with America in a way that Amina isn’t. What is the source of his anger?

9. If Akhil had lived longer, who else would he have painted on his ceiling? 

10. Do you think Sunil was really sleepwalking when he set fire to the house? 

11. All of the Eapens go through tremendous change, though Amina’s are more subtle than most. What is the biggest change in Amina’s personality?

12. If Jamie and Amina hadn’t shared their past, do you think she would have been able to trust him?

13. When Thomas sees Akhil, he believes it’s a genuine visit, not a side effect of his tumor. When Amina sees Akhil, she thinks it’s a symptom of her depression. Which explanation are you more inclined to believe?  

14. What invention do you imagine Thomas was last working on?

15. Why do you think the author titled her novel The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2014

    It was amazing!

    This a book that I will be forcing my boyfriend to read. That's how good it is.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 17, 2014

    This is a really fun and touching character-driven story about a

    This is a really fun and touching character-driven story about an Indian family who immigrates to the United States in search of a better life. As with many immigrants, while struggling to assimilate in a new country, they attempt to maintain many of their own cultural ways which naturally causes conflict. In this story, the conflicts are most of the fun.



    The characters in The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing are amazing: funny and full of depth and life. The writing sparkles and sometimes leaves you breathless. It is a wonderful book (a debut, no less), and I highly recommend it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2014

    Funny, sad, propulsive. When I came to the final 20 pages, I fou

    Funny, sad, propulsive. When I came to the final 20 pages, I found myself sitting in a subway station, finishing the book as I got later and later for my next appointment. Jacob captures a truth about life: beauty and impermanence are inseparably linked. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Get this book, people! The many pages of this gorgeously written

    Get this book, people! The many pages of this gorgeously written family saga will absolutely fly by, in the best way. The characters are painted in fresh, original strokes, imbued with humor and heart. I can't help but sound like a fancy book reviewer when I talk about this because all I want to do is gush about it! Pick it up—you'll be glad you did.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 10, 2014

    Full of life, depth, and magic! This amazing novel rings true on

    Full of life, depth, and magic! This amazing novel rings true on so many levels: if you've ever lost someone close to you, lost yourself, or found yourself in the midst of family mayhem, you will feel that truth very deeply...and at the same time, it's very entertaining and touching to just observe the story being told. What this book does so well is portray the intricacies of relationships--from those with one's family and friends to relating to the world at large, as well as the world within. This work will make you laugh, cry, and it will stick in your mind long after you're finished reading it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2014

    I loved this book! It was funny and heartbreaking all mixed toge

    I loved this book! It was funny and heartbreaking all mixed together. I can still hear the character's voices in my head. A must read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2014

    Jellal

    Yes

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2014

    Amazing read!

    Must read"

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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