It’s one of the classic soft-rock songs of the 1980s. Air Supply’s All Out of Love – complete with the plaintive refrain “I’m so lost without you / I know you were right / believing for so long” – has become a karaoke staple, the kind of slushy ballad so ironically terrible, it’s cool again. It’s also the favourite song of the teenage Amina Eapen, the quasi-narrator of Mira Jacob’s hugely enjoyable debut novel exploring the Indian immigrant experience in America, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing.
“You know, it’s often said characters reveal themselves to a writer,” says a smiling Jacob, herself born in America to Indian parents. “And when I realised that Amina had a soft spot for Air Supply, I really got a lock on her character – she’s a watcher, an observer. We ended up creating a playlist for the book, which has some really fun stuff on it.”
Often, a novel’s additional content is inessential at best. But here, the playlist is really neat shorthand for the themes revealed over two late-20th century decades: this is a novel about identity, and particularly what it might feel like to leave one country – in Amina’s family’s case, India – and settle somewhere completely different. So, amid songs such as America’s paean to the desert A Horse with No Name, and Van Halen’s celebratory Jump, there’s Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s My Heart, My Life.
“It’s the story of a family derailing,” says Jacob. “Amina goes back home to Albuquerque and by doing that two mysteries are unwound: what’s wrong with her father and what has happened to this family in their past to leave them as fractured as they are. And in with that is the tale of what happens to families when they come through the diaspora, when they leave one country and reform who they are sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much.”
Amina’s mother, Kamala, struggles with the cultural differences, and is desperate to see her daughter married. Her father, Thomas, buries himself in his work – and the gradual revealing of his character and motivations is key to the book. “I think for many of us, despite the many things we love about them, there is this vast terrain with fathers that remains unknowable,” says Jacob.
She admits that she felt “locked out” of a book that has taken 10 years to write until her own father died, and she decided to give Thomas his manners and reactions as a way of being with him again. It is, then, tempting to suggest The Sleepwalker's Guide is a thinly veiled autobiography.
“I don’t know about that – my parents were actually very cool,” she counters. “They loved being in America, they were really modern, and moving to New Mexico was incredibly freeing. They suddenly realised that they weren’t bound to tradition in a way that they had been in India. They were pretty adventurous.
“But at the strangest times, I’d still feel these really conservative tugs in them –— and all I could put that down to was the way they grew up. So writing this, I wanted to reflect those feelings, and how they might trickle down to me”
The great success of The Sleepwalker's Guide is that, in the midst of all these weighty themes, there’s also a girl growing up, a woman trying to find her place in the world, comedy, and heartbreaking tragedy.
“I’ve reached the age where the tragedies I face are unimaginable, but also unavoidable,” says Jacob. “You lose people that you love, and it’s a bludgeoning experience. So in this book I wanted to explore that. I didn’t want to lie about how devastating death can be, or make light of it, but pay homage to the sustaining strength of the family – be they Indian, Italian, or whatever – in that moment.”
• The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing (Bloomsbury) is out now