One reviewer specifically calls out Mira Jacob's debut novel for its terribly wrong title, and I have to agree.
"A Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing" tells you absolutely nothing about the book, and its somewhat fanciful cover illustration will likewise provide you with little to go on.
Go anyway. Little sleepwalking (although there is a bit) and less dancing occur in this tale of an Indian-American family and the waves of grief, large and small, that have engulfed it over a period of 20 years.
Patriarch Thomas Eapen is a celebrated brain surgeon in Albuquerque who has taken to holding late-night conversations with dead family members on his front porch, including the mother he'd quit speaking to decades before. Alarmed, his wife, Kamala, summons her daughter, Amina, a wedding photographer, home from Seattle. But the situation is stranger than an older man talking to "ghosts" at night. Amina finds herself digging into family history beyond her own recollections, particularly those of a visit to her father's home in India 20 years earlier, when family secrets spilled out and spoiled the trip.
"Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing" moves back and forth in time, detailing Amina's growing-up years with her rebellious brother, Akhil, and cousin, Dimple, (who also lives in Seattle and remains a friend), what has happened to her career as a news photographer (derailed by the backlash of a photo she has taken of a leader of the Native American community leaping off a bridge to his death), and the ghosts that haunt the Eapen family.
The sleepwalking image does hold some weight, however, between Thomas's insomnia, Akhil's narcolepsy and Thomas' brother Sunil's actual sleepwalking, and serves as a metaphor for the ways people go through life without paying attention to the circumstances around — and even within — them.
The book also shifts seamlessly between comedy and tragedy. Jacob, who narrates her own work, captures the comic nuances of the Indian immigrant experience in America, from the anachronism of women wearing traditional saris with modern American running shoes, to the constant drumbeat Amina's mother and aunts maintain about her status as a single woman in her 30s.
Three's something delightful about Thomas Eapen, who typically greets his daughter with a shout of "AminaAminaAmina!" and is held in high regard by his hospital colleagues even as they make allusions to his odd behavior.
But it's grief that is at the core of the story. Loss of family, loss of country, loss of career, loss of physical and mental capacity — all are folded into this long and thoroughly engaging novel.
AUDIO BOOK REVIEW
THE SLEEPWALKER’S GUIDE TO DANCING. By Mira Jacob. Random House Audio. Unabridged, 15 hours, 7 minutes. Narrated by the author.