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The Zigzag Way: A Novel [NOOK Book]

Overview

In her long, distinguished career, Anita Desai has focused her capacious vision on questions of culture and identity. Her mesmerizing new novel, The Zigzag Way, brings her fiction to an unexpected region of the world: mythical, lush Mexico. In this seductive landscape, a young American stumbles upon an unlikely path to self-discovery.

Eric is a newly minted historian just out of graduate school, unsure of his past choices and future options. With no clear direction, he follows ...

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The Zigzag Way: A Novel

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Overview

In her long, distinguished career, Anita Desai has focused her capacious vision on questions of culture and identity. Her mesmerizing new novel, The Zigzag Way, brings her fiction to an unexpected region of the world: mythical, lush Mexico. In this seductive landscape, a young American stumbles upon an unlikely path to self-discovery.

Eric is a newly minted historian just out of graduate school, unsure of his past choices and future options. With no clear direction, he follows his lover, Em, when she travels to the Yucatan for her scientific research, but he ends up alone in this foreign place. And so he pursues his own private quest, tracing his family's history to a Mexican ghost town, where, a hundred years earlier, young Cornish miners toiled to the death. With vivid sympathy, Desai conjures the struggles of Eric's grandparents and their community.

Now, in place of the Cornish workers, the native Huichol Indians suffer the cruelty of the mines. When he inquires into their lives, Eric provokes the ire of their self-appointed savior, Dona Vera. Known as the “Queen of the Sierra,” Dona Vera is the widow of a mining baron who has dedicated her fortune to preserving the Huichol culture. But her formidable presence belies a dubious past.

The zigzag paths of these characters converge on the Day of the Dead, bringing together past and present in a moment of powerful epiphany. Haunting and atmospheric, with splashes of exuberant color and darker violence, The Zigzag Way is a magical novel of elegiac beauty.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Like the recent film Lost in Translation, Desai's new novel tells of an American adrift in a foreign culture that remains frustratingly inscrutable. Eric is a New England-born graduate student in history at Harvard who follows his scientist girlfriend, Em, on a research trip to Mexico. Once she sets off with her colleagues to conduct field observations, he is left alone and overwhelmed by his own lack of purpose. Remembering that his Cornish grandfather, about whom he knows next to nothing, had worked as a miner in the Sierra Madre in the early part of the 20th century, he determines he will use the trip to find out more about his family's past. Along the way he meets an eccentric, powerful European woman, Do a Vera, who has become a champion of indigenous culture but whose own past is mysterious. The stories of Eric, his grandparents and Do a Vera are interwoven into a short, contemplative narrative. Eric is a passive narrator, clambering his way through the beautiful but beguiling scenery, which is described in florid, dense prose reflecting his sensory overload, in a story that never really gains momentum. While Desai has uncovered a compelling chapter in Mexican history, the novel is a meandering, disappointing journey. Agent, Melanie Jackson. (Nov. 9) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Eric is on a quest for a future and for clues to his Maine family's past. When he doesn't express interest in fishing his ancestral livelihood his mother sends him off to boarding school. Later at Harvard, he meets aspiring scientist Emily and eventually follows her on a research trip to the Yucat n. There, Eric learns of his English grandfather, who left Cornwall to toil away in the Mexican mines, which the native Huichol Indians now work at a similar psychological cost. Eric's story fades into that of the formidable Dona Vera, which flashes back to Eric's grandfather. Three times short-listed for the Booker Prize, Desai has amassed fascinating material, but in this slender novel of immigrants, love, and familial duty she does not develop her characters deeply enough to make a meaningful narrative. Her venerable reputation might overshadow these criticisms, however. For larger literary collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/04.] Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Again, Desai explores cultural fault lines as she describes a young American's experiences in Mexico. Strongly evoking a distant time and place-Mexico in the early 1900s-Desai (stories: Diamond Dust, 2000, etc.) introduces protagonist Eric, a historian who has lost faith in academics because he prefers detail to generalities. He's been living with Em in Boston, where she pursues her medical studies with single-minded determination, and when Em announces she must visit Mexico to do research, Eric decides to go along too. Once there, Em has her own agenda, and when Eric, left on his own in Mexico City, by chance hears aging ethnographer Dona Vera talk about her work with Huichol Indians, he recognizes some of the places she mentions: they're the places his Cornish grandfather described when he told young Eric about his experiences mining silver in Mexico, where Eric's father was born in the midst of Pancho Villa and Zapata's revolution. Eric, who like his father has never quite fit in-both men are imaginative and solitary-next travels to the remote region in the Sierra where silver was once mined, and, after one night at Dona Vera's hacienda in the valley, takes a bus to the mountainside town. The former mining town is mostly abandoned, but with the Day of the Dead at hand, it fills up as visitors come to honor their dead. Between Eric's arrival in the town and his search for his grandmother's grave, Desai tells the story of how young Betty left Cornwall to marry Eric's grandfather David, adjusted to life in a Mexican village, but died giving birth to Eric's father. Eric, deeply affected, gives his vivid imagination free rein as a night in the cemetery becomes a transformative encounterwith both the living and the dead. Sensitive proof that understanding lies as much in the details as in the broad strokes.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780544356993
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 3/4/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 881,599
  • File size: 894 KB

Meet the Author

ANITA DESAI is the author of Fasting, Feasting, Baumgartner’s Bombay, Clear Light of Day, and Diamond Dust, among other works. Three of her books have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Desai was born and educated in India and now lives in the New York City area.
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Read an Excerpt

1 Oh, tourist, is this how this country is going to answer you and your immodest demands for a different world, and a better life, and complete comprehension of both at last, and immediately .s.s.
—Elizabeth Bishop, “Arrival at Santos”

“THERE IS only the one inn,” he was told when, on getting off the bus, he asked where he might stay.
Since the inn was directly across the square from where the bus had stopped, he could not have missed it even in the dusk. The wind that had scraped and scoured the hills around till the stones gleamed white now struck the tin signboard against the wall of the inn with the sound of a bell striking the hours, drawing his attention to it.
He buttoned up his jacket, sank his chin into the folds of his scarf, picked up his bag, and set off toward the house on a path under the casuarina trees, passing an empty fountain with a broken spout. The houses around the square were all shut and dark, no window or door to let light fall across the pillared arcades except for the store at the corner where a few men had gathered under a bare electric bulb as if for warmth; it was from them he had inquired about lodgings. Now they watched him as he crossed the square to the inn and continued to watch as he knocked again and again at the door. If they said anything to each other, he could not hear them for the sound of the wind coming through the casuarinas and the tin signboard beating.
Finally, a woman let him in. She was engaged in conversation with someone in the room behind and did not stay but withdrew, leaving him in the darkness of the hall. He could make out a desk, a massive carved one like a house with many doors, all shut, but no one attended it. A row of keys hung from a shelf above it on which some short stout candles flickered and poured out pools of soft tallow. They cast their uncertain light on a skull with green sequins for eyes and a circlet of gilt marigolds for a crown. Above this, on the wall, whole skeletons danced and cavorted, rustling in the draft from the door, for they were cut out of paper.
He watched them and listened to a clock ticking somewhere, mesmerized. In the room beyond he could see light and a fire, people and movement—real, living, not papery or skeletal or funereal. The clattering sound of metal pans and earthenware told him it was the kitchen. That was promising but no one seemed interested in the appearance of a stranger.
Eventually someone, someone else, did come down a staircase from the upper regions of the house and greeted him, a young woman with her dark hair tied back in a ribbon. She pushed up the sleeves of her red sweater as if for business and when he asked if she had a room, slid a form across the desk for him to fill in. “How many nights?” she asked but when she saw him hesitate, shrugged, indicating he could put down what he liked, it did not matter. Unhooking an iron key eight or ten inches long, she offered to show him a room.
He followed her down a dark stairwell, which had dim lamps attached to a stone wall at such long intervals that there were stretches of stone steps where no light was cast at all. Deeper and deeper down she took him, her felt slippers making no sound, and it was as if they were going farther and farther back in time, finally reaching a period that was surely medieval for the door they arrived at seemed hewn with an ax; when she turned the immense key in its immense lock, it creaked open on what he feared would be a cellar if not a dungeon.
Instead, when she switched on an electric light, the room blazed into color, proving improbably cheerful. There was a vast bed heaped with red cushions on a white bedspread, a sheepskin rug on the floor, and white cotton curtains at a high, small window. She spun the tap at the washbasin to show him it worked and water flowed, and smiled to see him smile with relief, lower his bag onto a chair, and nod to indicate he would take the room.
“Upstairs is the restaurant where you may eat,” she told him, and laying out a clean towel for him, disappeared.
As he washed his face with a block of soap, then scrubbed with the thick, dry towel, he thought of the days and nights he had spent on the train, slowly, sadly rattling over the lonely plains, struggling to achieve the horizon where hills rose to break the oppressive flatness only to find them mysteriously receding and remaining elusive, and then the hours on the bus through the valley with its strange twisted forms of cacti rising out of the volcanic rubble like stakes rising from secret graves. He had almost ceased to believe the town existed, that it was anything more than a legend, this ghost town of the sierra.
This perception had been maagnified on entering the inn; now he felt slightly ashamed of his lack of faith, the many weak moments of panic he had had. He thought of himselfffff cutting the figure of a timid pilgrim who sinks down in despair again and again along the way, needing to be coaxed and assisted into rising and going on, and avoided looking at himself in the tin- framed mirror as he rubbed his hair dry.

Upstairs, in the restaurant, the door to the kitchen stood open. Light streamed in as well as the sounds of pots rattling and voices animated by food, drink, and company. The aroma of food being prepared over open fires was enough to raise his wavering spirits and make him anticipate the comfort of a meal and a drink. Some of the tables were already occupied. Two men who looked like officials sat drinking beer and eating nachos, expansive in their gestures and speech as if pleased with themselves and how profitably their day had passed. At another table, some young men, still boys, alternately brushed back their hair and drank from bottles of Coca-Cola, then got up to go into the kitchen and returned with plates of food. In a corner, an elderly couple sat trying to feed a small boy, who knelt on the bench beside them but seemed more interested in playing with his bowl of soup than in eating from it. They coaxed him; he turned his head away and splashed the soup with his spoon.
Then a young man came out of the kitchen, where he had been laughing so that the afterimage of his laugh lingered on his face, and crossed the room to their table, took the spoon away, and sat down, taking the child on his lap and indicating that he would feed him.
It was a domestic scene and Eric was not particularly drawn to domesticity but, deciding there was enough evidence of nourishment, chose a nearby table and waited for a menu to be presented. One of the women in the kitchen came out and handed him one and he ordered a bottle of red wine straightaway, with food to follow. As he expected, most of the items on the menu proved unavailable—they had, in fact, seemed a bit improbable. Only one dish was actually available and it was brought to him, undeniably hot and reviving. He drank, ate, and watched the family at the neighboring table more tolerantly: domesticity clearly had its points.
But now the child slipped off the young man’s lap and ran about the room, shouting in triumph at his escape. The elders all laughed. The child had the transparent gray-blue eyes and head of silky golden curls that make anyone popular at first glance. The young man possessed a slightly more worn version. The older couple was short and dark, which made the child’s fairness the more distinctive.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, he darted across to Eric’s table and began to bang his spoon on its edge as if aware he was both naughty and pretty and would attract attention but not censure. The young man, the father, came rushing over to pick him up in his arms and kiss him, laughing; then he apologized to Eric and sat down at his table, holding the child on his lap.
“He has only just learned to run—and so he runs everywhere. He makes us run too,” he explained. “If we don’t catch him, he will run out in the street, he is so quick.” “It seems safe,” Eric replied. “There is no traffic.” “Oh, it is coming, coming soon, more every day—for the festival you know,” the young man said. “Many come for the Día de los Muertos here. It is—it is—” he rolled his eyes and held a hand in the air to indicate its importance.
He had an accent Eric could not place precisely: it might have been German, Austrian—perhaps Swiss? As if aware of this speculation, the young man held out his hand and introduced himself. “André Bernstein,” he announced, and of course that could be from any one of those countries, thought Eric.
“Have you been here long?” he asked, not being able to think of a more original opening to a dialogue in a Mexican inn in a town visited by tourists.
“Here? Four years now. I came to spend one night in the inn, met Paola, never left.” he laughed happily. “She cast a spell—like in a fairy story, no?” Eric thought that if it were like a spell in a fairy story, then it was bound to break one day, which would be sad for the father, who was playing so delightedly with his son, capturing him every time he tried to slip away. Eventually the child did wriggle free and escape, choosing the moment when the father launched upon his story, one he clearly enjoyed telling. It was a fairly commonplace story for these times—about a boy who had grown up in a small town in the Alps, developed the “wanderlust” he said, made his way on a cargo ship to Costa Rica, then gone backpacking north into Guatemala and to Yucatán, where he ran into the rainy season and with it the swarms of mosquitoes that found his blood sweet to devour, came down with malaria, and began to pine for mountain air. Northward, then, to the high sierra, where he recovered his health—and, in Paula, so much more. His expression melted like butter, in uxurious bliss.
“Other foreigners have come here and stayed too, have they not?” Eric probed, his tiredness combining with the red wine to make him less nimble, less discreet than he was by nature.
He saw at once that he had been clumsy and too abrupt by the way the fair-haired man’s expression altered as if the soft butter, the melting wax of it, had suddenly stiffened. He no longer looked so pleased as when he was telling his “fairy story.” Eric was clearly suggesting that it was not an uncommon story, that it was much the same as that of others—and no one cares to hear that. Each stranger, each traveler needs to think his story unique.
But having blundered, Eric felt helpless to stop himself. “Dona Vera who lives in the Hacienda de la Soledad below, that is her story too, perhaps?” Now the young man looked at him, astounded. Then he bent over with laughter. He tipped back his chair and roared with it, his face flushed with it. As he laughed and continued to laugh, Eric found himself flushing too, with annoyance. He failed to see the joke and was about to say so when André spluttered, “So, you are one of those, eh?” “One of—?” “Those who travel to her hacienda—de la Soledad, ha!—to pay homage” — he began to chuckle again, helplessly—“homage to la Reina de la Sierra. Is that not how she is known to all of you?” “I had never even heard of her a week ago,” Eric protested, “and did not come for her sake but for the mountain—” “Oh. Ah. The magic mushroom then, the peyote?” “No,” Eric protested with force, and was wondering if it would be a good idea to confide in this lighthearted listener what had really brought him here, when it became evident that the listener had lost interest, or become distracted, having suddenly remembered his son and noted his absence.
“Sebastian,” he cried in alarm, looking about him wildly, “where are you?” and darted out of a door that opened not into the square that Eric had come through but onto a narrow side street.
Of course that was just when the child’s mother appeared—the woman with the dark hair in a red ribbon who had let him in. Looking around, she too began to call, “Sebastian! Sebastian!” and Eric felt compelled to point at the open door and peer out of it himself.
On that side street, where only one lamp hung, casting all else into darkness, they saw the child sitting on the curb, holding a puppy in his arms. Sometimes, when it struggled and yipped, he set it down, where it snuffled among bits of paper, rags, empty cans. The child, too, got down into the drain so they could explore the debris together. The puppy had seized something it found particularly tasty—a shoe sole, perhaps, or a stained rag—and the child tried to tug it away. Both pulled and struggled. The child was laughing to feel the puppy’s small, fierce strength and tried to match it.
Then both of Sebastian’s parents converged on the pair and picked their son out of the drain. He kicked his legs and protested loudly but they kissed his cheeks and stroked his hair and carried him back into the inn.
Eric saw there was to be no more conversation tonight; he was to be left to turn things over in his mind as if they were cards in a game of solitaire and to watch the bustle in the kitchen gradually close down for the night.
By then he had drunk a whole bottle of red wine. That, on top of his exhaustion and the doubts and discomforts of a journey undertaken on a whim. So, when he finally went down to bed—down, down the stone stairwell, one pounding step after another, in semidarkness, the last journey of the day—he felt his head, his brain, his mind come crashing down together. Bits and pieces, shreds and shards, all cluttered and confused and rattling as he threw himself on the bed. He lay against the red cushions, under the white wool bedspread, and tried to steady the swinging of his mind.
Usually it was steadying to think of Em, so he did. Although he had no idea how far along she was with her journey, he could be certain that wherever she was, she was Em. Down to the shadow of a disapproving frown on her brow as she observed him sprawling there, idle. It would creep across her face whenever she came back from a long day at the lab and found him at home, in Boston, reading and listening to Mozart and to Schumann with the cat Shakespeare ensconced on his lap, and his book held slightly to the side. Her disapproval would never really cast a shadow on his mood, which tended by nature to be halcyon; besides, it was more like a small, passing cloud than a threatening storm. He would tell her of his day at the library, pass on amusing bits of information he had extracted from his reading, and describe the scenes at the café where he had his tea and scone overlooking Harvard Square and from where he watched the tramps, the musicians, the chess players and students who provided it with movement, and amusement. He carefully refrained from letting her know how bored he had been during those long hours at the library, how he could scarcely bear to look at the thesis he had written on immigration patterns in Boston in the 1900s and then proposed to expand, for lack of a fresh idea, into a study of immigration in general. He had received a generous grant to do so but that did not help to inspire him. Dispersing the particular into the general seemed to cast it far into space and his intention of pursuing it faltered and dwindled and threatened to fail. He would have gladly thrown it into the trash can at the door to the café and been rid of that last link to the tiresome student days but he was not prepared to confess this to Em. Her interest in his “studies,” perhaps a polite reciprocation of his interest in hers, was still of importance to him.
It had astonished him, to begin with, that the young woman he had noticed for her somewhat aloof and preoccupied air, setting her apart from the groups crowding the hallways of their dormitory with their clutter and noise, could show such an interest in a subject and field other than her own. Yet she was willing to stroll with him across the campus to their classes, earnestly talking, and when he searched her out in the cafeteria, to eat her sandwich and her soup with him rather than with anyone else. He was to learn that it was Emily Hatter’s gift to give her entire and serious attention to the subject at hand, so much so that it bolstered his own rather uncertain confidence in it. After their graduation, almost without any discussion about the matter, they moved into an apartment together and were not surprised to find the arrangement entirely comfortable, even Em’s cat adjusting to it without protest. (The idea of “shelter” often came to Eric’s mind even if he never spoke of it.) After a day spent in separate academic pursuits, they would come together to cook a dish of pasta and make a salad and eat to the melodious outflow of sound from piano, horn, and clarinet, compositions that seemed to express their own harmony. Even the crease between Em’s even eyebrows would gradually soften and smooth over. They seemed to have already arrived at a stage that many couples require thirty years to achieve, although both were still graduate students and had not spoken once of marriage; there was often an atmosphere of self-congratulation hovering over these perfect occasions.
It was not his increasing loss of faith in his own studies that finally upset the safely even keel and security of their lives together in the apartment they shared in a red-brick block of student apartments on a street lined with many more such blocks. Unexpectedly, it was Em who announced one evening toward the end of a long, sorry winter that it was now unavoidable that she carry her research into “the field.” Her field was the forests of Yucatán, where mosquitoes teemed and malaria was rife. Boston had become too limited for her; she had outgrown its resources and needed to proceed.
That evening she sat quietly, running her fingers over and over again through her cropped hair—so fair as to seem almost ashen— committed to the next stage of her work but aware of its significance to their relationship. “I’ll be away in the field with my professors,” she kept explaining as if afraid he did not understand the implications. It appeared he did not, because, instead of turning apprehensive or worried as she expected him to be at the announcement of her departure, he seemed stirred and excited by the news. “But, Em, it’ll be just the thing for me,” was his unexpected response, in a voice that had risen by several decibels, and with his glasses flashing his enthusiasm. “You know how stuck I am for ideas.” She had not known. “What do you mean?” “Oh, I’ve done all the work on that thesis I ever wanted to do. I haven’t really the least interest in taking it any further—” “But your fellowship? You were given it to work on a book.” “I just can’t—you see, I haven’t the right kind of mind for theory. I’ve always worked with detail, Em. And can’t seem to find the one I need.” “Have you spoken about this to your professors?” “No, no, not yet. But I’ve considered making a fresh proposal.” “Have you? You never told me about it.” “No, well, I haven’t any fresh ideas yet,” he confessed, “but if I came with you to Mexico, I’m sure ideas would just come flooding in,” and he smiled as winningly, as persuasively, as he could, refusing to be discouraged by the doubt in her gray eyes.
As she ran fingers nervously through her hair, he ran his through Shakespeare’s.
Outside, Boston lay like a lumberyard, incapacitated by winter, knee-deep in slush, ice, and mud, its houses sagging under their sodden weight. Gutters awry, window frames moldy, woodpiles and metal junk protruding from the soiled snow. As if to emphasize its plight, a branch of the bare tree at the window cracked and plunged downward with its burden of ice. One glance through the curtains—he could never get them to meet—at the traffic crawling in the street below, and Eric resumed his pleas.
“I might come across, um, something in Mexico that would put me on the right track,” he said in what he hoped was a confident tone.
“Or not. You don’t know Mexico, you’ve never been there, it might not prove the right place at all. You’re an Americanist after all.” Em could not see how her Mexico, and its mosquitoes, could possibly provide him with ideas for a book on immigration.

But in the subsequent months of preparation for the field study, it became clear that Em would be away in Mexico for a considerable amount of time, and she began to give way to Eric’s persuasions; they found themselves discussing such details as where Shakespeare was to be housed in their absence and arranging to take him to Eric’s parents before they left.
Visits to Eric’s family were always hasty, improvised, scrambled affairs, infrequent and rarely satisfactory. Em, who came from a solid phalanx of doctors, dentists, optometrists, and surgeons in Philadelphia and its environs, so that her own choice of medical profession seemed not only logical but inevitable, never could find such a link between the Eric she knew and his family, which was, effectively, his mother’s side of it.
There they were, all over the great muddy yard by the sea, at one end the fish market and at the other the restaurant that carried the family name, O’Brien’s, on its great wooden signboard with its painted image of a fiery red lobster, and down below the docks where the boats drew up with the daily catch. The collection of white clapboard houses they lived in were scattered up and down the slope of granite with its crown of tough, stunted fir trees at the top. In one dogs barked, in another babies squalled, smoke billowed from the chimney of a third, and laundry flapped on a line outside a fourth. Men and women dressed identically in blue jeans, plaid flannel shirts, and rubber boots climbed up and down between them, bearing lobster pots and tubs of fish or dragging lengths of fish netting. Some were setting out in their boats, others returning. The smells of diesel fuel from boat engines, of fish from the sea, of brine and seaweed, swirled as thick as steam in the chill autumnal air, and gulls hovered, shrieking with unappeased greed.
Em hung back, letting Eric go before to find his parents within the crowding clan. How could he, her Eric—scholarly and spectacled—have emerged from out of it, she wondered, as always. She held the cowering, apprehensive Shakespeare in his box in her arms, protectively, but it might have been Eric she was protecting.
He had explained to her, often, his parents’ recognition of the awkwardness of having such a misfit for a son, this pale, frail scholar within a clan of hearty Maine fisher folk. Eric’s father had always gamely accepted the blame, as an Englishman and an intruder on their Irish Catholic tribe, but it was his mother who had, in her direct and practical way, dealt with the problem by plucking him out of the turmoil of a high-spirited family bred for the outdoors, and sending him to a boarding school for an education. This went totally against the family tradition—it was not even a parochial school run by the Irish priests, which she might have chosen if she had wanted and which would have been quite acceptable, but a small, progressive school run by an old friend of hers from the convent school who had rebelled against their own education and created an alternative in the hills of New Hampshire. Here they taught Eric according to the precepts of Rudolf Steiner, and after years of dancing barefoot to the music of a piano, painting with oils in airy studios, playing the flute, and attending classes on wooded hilltops, he found himself totally unfit for life in the family’s boatyards and fishing boats; lobster as food totally repelled him. The one direction he could take was to the universities and libraries of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Returning to the clan remained as daunting and bracing as a plunge into the Atlantic Ocean.
Not that anyone had the time to notice his trepidation, or Em’s. Eric was directed to the back room of the restaurant where his father had an office and kept the books while Em went in search of Eric’s mother. She was not to be found in her house, having communal duties to fulfill, but Shakespeare could be unboxed in the relative privacy it afforded before Em ventured into the restaurant, where the clan had gathered for a meal now that it was closed to the public for the season. She and Eric sat on opposite sides of the long table and she glanced at him, quiet between his equally quiet father and a large and gregarious uncle. Then there was the clam chowder to attend to with the accompanying oyster crackers, and after that a procession of dishes each as large as a basin and oozing with sauces and gravies, melted butter and cream. “You city folk need some feeding up,” she was told again and again each time someone heaped another spoonful on her plate.
The talk ricocheted back and forth across the table, and she found she was not required to add to it. Eric had previously pointed out to her how no one in his family—other than his mother, privately—ever asked them a question about their own lives: where they lived or how, what they worked at, where they had been or what they planned to do; these were simply not subjects of any interest. Instead, as usual, they told and retold the same family stories, each time evoking the same responses. Em could hardly believe it but yes, once again they were telling the story that Eric so hated to hear, about the first time he went trick-or-treating as a child on Hallowe’en.
“You remember that mouse mask we gave you to wear, Eric—” “The Mickey Mouse mask from the cereal box—” “When you wanted to be Batman—” “And you set off brave as a lion, with a pillowcase for candy, and when you got to the first house and saw all the pumpkins lined up with candles in them—” “On a dark and windy night—” “And then the door opened and this hu-uge clown with a red nose and carroty hair and great big grin painted on his face came out to give you some candy—” “You just screamed and ran.” “And the clown ran after you, yelling, ‘Here, take some candy,’ but you were so scared—” “You never went trick-or-treating again with the rest of us.” Em tried to catch Eric’s eye but he was looking sideways, mumbling, “Well, Hallowe’en is scary, you know.” “It’s meant to be!” they chorused. “But clowns are not. Why were you scared by the clown?” Then they went on to talk of the time the circus had come to the neighboring town and they had all been taken to it but Eric had disgraced himself by letting out a shriek when the clown appeared and was reduced to such a state that they had had to get up and leave. Groans rang out all around the table as at this point they always did.
Eric’s mother, several seats away, sat quietly waiting till they were done with their stories and their dishes, when she could rise and start clearing the table. Em joined her with relief.
At the kitchen sink the two women found themselves alone together, Eric’s mother washing while Em dried. They had done this on previous visits too: the mother, being the only daughter in a family of sons, had this role to play. At the same time, she made it evident that while she cooked, cleaned, and washed up for the others, she had a mind of her own, separate and intact. She had shown it when she had insisted on marrying the English stranger who appeared in their village some forty-odd years ago, and again when she chose to send Eric away to school. Now Em, wiping plate after plate with a dishtowel, saw another display of it: a steady stream of questions was being directed at her regarding her work, her research, her university, its labs, her colleagues, and her workplace by the woman who had rarely left the fishing village in Maine where she had been born but seemed keenly aware—unlike the rest of her family—that there was a world beyond it. Em, scrubbing and polishing furiously with her dishtowel, tried to make satisfying answers while attempting to comprehend a mind so free of resentment or envy, so buoyant with curiosity and quest.
When the last dish was put away and the towel hung up to dry, they paused for a bit by the sink, looking through the window made almost opaque with steam at the rocks below where the figures of Eric and his father could just be discerned, picking their way gingerly around rock pools and boulders. It was clearly the two of them, the only men who wore neither plaid flannel shirts nor rubber boots—hands deep in the pockets of their black parkas, the hoods pulled up over their heads, which were lowered to the spray that flew up from the white-capped waves of the wintry sea.
Eric’s mother gave a little laugh and dabbed her finger at the windowpane, making an opening in the steamy screen. “Don’t they look just like a pair of herons?” she said to Em, as if she thought them a pair of exotic visitors to her workaday world, which, perhaps, Em did too.
Driving back to Boston in the early dark, Em and Eric were both silent with fatigue and with their thoughts. Em did finally stir herself to say, “Your dad was quiet.” “Isn’t he always?” “Your mom’s family seems to overwhelm him.” “Oh, he likes that. They leave him alone, in his office room, with his books. Did you get any time with Mom?” “We did the dishes together.” “Talk?” “I did more than her.” “It’s not her thing.” Em laughed suddenly. “She did say you looked like a pair of herons down on the rocks, you and your dad. And you did. I wish I had come with you.” He put out his hand to clasp hers for saying that. “I wish you had.” They were passing a row of stores and their attendant parking lots, gas stations, and motels, with the traffic and the glare of lights making it difficult to talk and drive at the same time. It was when they achieved a quieter, darker stretch of the highway with tall fir forests looming on either side that he gave her some information he had clearly been mulling over. “When I told Dad we were going to Mexico, he told me something I hadn’t known before— that he was born there. He’d never told me that.” “But how strange, Eric—not to know where your dad was born!” “Well, you know my family is strange. You’ve always said that,” he teased her.
“But as strange as that! I never guessed. Why hadn’t he told you before?” “I suppose because he doesn’t remember a thing about it. He was taken to England as an infant and brought up there. Mexico is just a fairy tale to him.” “Oh.” Em yawned. There seemed no point in pursuing a conversation that had no substance. She settled deeper into the seat, putting her head back to sleep while Eric drove.

Copyright © 2004 by Anita Desai. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Contents PART I—Eric Arrives PART II—Vera Stays PART III—Betty Departs PART IV—La Noche de los Muertos
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2008

    A reviewer

    The Zigzag Way tells a story of a line of men and the events that take place through the generations. The various story lines and the charcters that belong to each are well developed and connect over into other parts of the novel. The novel shows the transformation of Mexico from the quotes written in 1519 to the modern day account of Eric's travels. Zigzag Way is a plesent read if you are looking for a good story.

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