I would probably never have read this book if it hadn’t been voted on by the majority of people in my book club.
The description didn’t particularly grab me, but if I had “judged the book by its cover” as the saying goes, then I would have never discovered this excellent work of literary fiction that is the best thing I’ve read since All the Light We Cannot See.
There’s not too many times where I read contemporary fiction and elevate it to a modern classic, but I would with Mira Jacob‘s brilliant and lengthy debut that took her 10 years to write.
The main character, Amina Eapen, is the same age as me, and I think that had something to do with why I liked it so much. I could relate to her, even though my family is not Indian, I haven’t suffered a heartbreaking family tragedy, I am not a photographer, and I am no longer single and getting questioned about boys.
It didn’t matter because at the heart of this novel is a story about family and relationships, of holding on and letting go and living in the delicate balance between those two doors that we can all identify with.
The novel is epic in the sense of its length (about 500 pages), scope (taking place in 1970s India, 1980s New Mexico, and 1990s Seattle), and structure: two alternating storylines that hinge on two members of the Eapen family: one concerning her rebellious older brother Akhil, the other concerning her father Thomas, a brain surgeon. Despite the palpable grief that lives in this novel, it didn’t feel weighed down by it. And even though medical conditions come into play, it didn’t ever strike me as a “disease”-type book in the way Still Alice is, where a medical diagnosis drives the plot.
No, this was a book rich in family dynamics that made me laugh out loud numerous times, that made me reread phrases because of the deft and beautiful way Jacob described some everyday thing, and that made me poke my nose out of the book and tell my husband to listen to this line so he could agree with me that “That’s exactly what it’s like!”
As a lover of similes and metaphors, Jacob’s prose is full of them. Here are some of my favourites:
She could feel her need to get off the boat as sharply as a full bladder.
Their parents, turning and returning to the dining room table to huddle over the old photo albums like caged parrots clutching at a shared axis.
“My parents. It’s weird. They go everywhere together now. The garden, the porch, probably the bathroom for all I know. It’s like they’re dating or something.”
“No it’s not. It’s like having the sun set on the wrong fucking side of the sky.”
And listen to this description of something I would never think to give this kind of attention to but as soon as Jacob says it, yes. I have seen my father be that mythical beast.
“Amina?” Her father opened her bedroom door on the last school night of the year. “Can I come in?”
Why do fathers always look ungainly in their daughter’s bedrooms? Like mythical beasts wandered in from the forest of another world?
And the dialogue is a bang-on, too. I especially loved all the repartees between Amina and her mother, Kamala, (or really Kamala with anybody) whose character comes to life so much based on the way she speaks.
“Wait just one minute, Mr. Big Horses!” Kamala yelled at Chacko. “Don’t you sit there yak-yakking for me!”
“I’d love to have dinner, Mrs. Eapen, as long as I don’t put you out.”
“Not out! In. I’m cooking.”
This is a book that, for lack of a better phrase, felt very true.
And the ending, just right.