On the back porch of the big house in Albuquerque, Thomas Eapen’s dead beloveds come to visit, one by one. He misses them. He welcomes them. For hours, he talks and listens to them.
He’s not the only person seeing ghosts in Mira Jacob’s beautifully wrought, frequently funny, gently heartbreaking debut novel, “The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing.” But, for a while anyway, he’s the only one not actively fleeing them.
“Are you sure he should be working right now?” his daughter, Amina, asks by phone, and it’s a reasonable question. An affectionate but distracted father, Thomas is an affable workaholic, a brain surgeon who spends most of his time at the hospital. But if he’s hallucinating, conversing all night with the mother he wouldn’t speak to when she was alive, shouldn’t he keep his hands out of other people’s skulls?
Alarmed, Amina flies to New Mexico, back to her bickering immigrant parents and Prince Philip, the family dog. It’s 1998, and Amina’s photojournalism career in Seattle — capped by her iconic image of a man plunging to his death — has derailed into wedding photography. Given that she’s 30-ish and single, it’s a particularly awkward milieu. Her mother, Kamala, a fierce and tiny force of nature, prefers that she were long married by now.
Thomas taught Amina to pursue her passion for a living. “You find the thing you love the most, and time will stop for you to love it,” he says. But Amina has exiled herself from professional joy. She can’t bear the guilt of having tweaked the camera settings and snapped the shutter on her famous shot, composing it from a distance as her subject killed himself. “I thought the man falling would make a good picture, that it would be beautiful,” she says. “Can you imagine?”
It wasn’t the first time she’d looked through the viewfinder and emotionally detached from the danger on the other side. Fifteen years before, when they were teenagers, Amina aimed her camera at her big brother, Akhil, and realized a secret he was keeping could kill him. But inertia and adolescent reasoning ruled: “She shut her eyes and took the picture.” When he died, he became her most persistent ghost.
The failure to be a good keeper to one’s brother — or son or father or mother — is a key regret in “The Sleepwalker’s Guide,” not just for Amina but for Thomas, his mother’s golden child. He followed his heart when he married Kamala, and again a few years later when they abandoned India for the United States, leaving his mother and less-loved brother Sunil behind. Sunil’s unhappiness would be the undoing of that branch.
“The Sleepwalker’s Guide” interweaves stories surrounding three crises for the Eapens: Thomas’s insomniac hallucinations in 1998, Akhil’s adolescent-onset narcolepsy in 1982-83, and — glimpsed much more briefly, in India — Sunil’s somnambulant violence in 1979. Together they tell a tale of family bonds and familial responsibility; of immigration and assimilation; of absence and the gaping, unfillable spaces that death leaves behind.
Moving forward and back in time, Jacob balances comedy and romance with indelible sorrow, and she is remarkably adept at tonal shifts. When her plot springs surprises, she lets them happen just as they do in life: blindsidingly right in the middle of things. She also makes some dicey bits of her basic setup — a brain surgeon with something awry in his head, a photographer who closes her eyes to what’s right in front of her — seem not overly obvious but inevitably human.
Jacob uses all of her senses, too. Scent, that powerful unlocker of memories, is unusually present in ways both amusing — as when a 1982 prep-school assembly smells of “hair shampooed with Vidal Sassoon” — and wrenching. After Akhil dies, someone who loved him walks into his bedroom and heads “straight for his hamper . . . pulling out a forgotten T-shirt and crushing it into her face.” It is a pure and piercing act of mourning.
Thomas is not the only one clinging to a relic or grasping at an afterimage, wishing for a few more moments with a ghost. Beloved though they were in life, time didn’t stop to let anyone love them longer.