Writers & Books has expanded its annual "If All of Rochester Read the Same Book" program by introducing a Debut Novel Series, which seeks to familiarize Rochester audiences with authors who have recently published their first books.
The first work in the new series is "The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing" by Mira Jacob, who visited Rochester last week to read from and discuss her book.
"The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing" is a quickly engaging and deeply moving pleasure. Jacob deftly interweaves believable individual lives that comprise a family that has had to navigate a gaping chasm formed by loss. Through her beautiful storytelling, Jacob also points to how the outcome of such a loss cannot be contained tidily in a predictable pattern of ripples.
The book opens with a tense phone call between mother and daughter, Kamala and Amina, from which we learn that the family's patriarch has been behaving erratically and having conversations with dead relatives. Amina's wary decision to fly home begins the unraveling of layers of painful history with roots in a traumatic trip to India 20 years earlier.
Though the initial focus of the book is on the father's odd behavior, he is not the only person in the story haunted by the unsettled. Many of the characters struggle with an invisible and stubborn connection to past trauma, which rises and walks about their lives, unbidden.
Jacob takes us back and forth through time and across continents, slowly and steadily unraveling painful histories through the exploration of pivotal moments shared by the family, or experienced by single members.
Readers quickly learn that the novel's synopsis carefully guards "a big, strong hole in the middle of the book, and his name is Ahkil," Jacob says, of Amina's older brother. The rest of the characters spin in a troubled orbit around his gravity until their own uneasy patterns are forced to break apart and change.
Jacob is adept at painting a nuanced picture of deep suffering and complicated relationships, while also locating and shining a light upon the beauty, truth, and humor within the layers of familial and personal history.
The work's compassionate consideration of great loss intermingles with an exploration of coping mechanisms both safe — embodied by Kamala's cooking, which brings people together — and strange, as explored in the sleeping disorders which manifest differently in various members of the family.
Though the book is a work of fiction, there are important parallels between the novel and Jacob's own life. One is that the children of the story's central family are first-generation Americans; they are children of Indian immigrants, just as Jacob is. Much of the conflict in the novel originates in the children's navigation of a culture that is not entirely their own, while living under the stress of quiet storms at home.
"I always feel like I'm trying to write about invisible continents that exist between a person and their inherited country," Jacob says. "There's this place that you are living, that you actually live, that does not have solid borders on it — that's porous. That has parts of India in it and parts of America in it."
The book was 10 years in the making, in part because the idea which sparked the story became a little too real for the author.
"I wanted to write about a father who was receding from the world in some way, and I thought that he was probably going to get Alzheimer's," Jacob says. "And I wanted to write about what happens to a family when one of its members starts disappearing right in front of them."
As she was writing, Jacob's own father was diagnosed with cancer. She shelved the book for three years "because I couldn't bear to write about a father who was on his way out when mine was," she says. "It felt cursed, and pretty devastating."
About a year after her father's death, Jacob began writing again, but found that she was subconsciously imbuing the book's patriarch with elements of her father's mannerisms and ways that she related to him.
Jacob says she feared that she'd ruined the book, and confessed as much to her husband, filmmaker Jed Rothstein.
"I'm a fiction writer, and this is against the rules," she says.
Rothstein's reassuring response was to ask, "Whose rules are these?"
"It was a really sweet thing to say, from one creative to another," Jacob says.
Writing her father's personality into a new life "was a way to get to be with him a little bit longer," she says.
For more information on Writers & Books' programming: wab.org.