Don’t you just love it when you discover a fine book in some “accidental” way? Not through media hype or bookstore in-your-face placement, but through the recommendation of a friend who wants to share something special, because you are roaming around the library dipping into books here and there and one grabs you, or, perhaps, even because you have nothing else to read and find one left behind on the bus or subway? I think these are magical finds and somehow all the more special because of it. One such discovery for me was The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (HarperCollins 2005).
Umrigar is an Indian-American writer, born in Mumbai, who immigrated to the United States when she was 21 and now lives in Cleveland, OH. She is a journalist, author, and assistant professor of English at Case Western Reserve University where she teaches creative writing and literature. She has written for the Washington Post and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, among other newspapers, and regularly writes about books for The Boston Globe. Since her first novel, Bombay Time, Umrigar has received critical acclaim for her ability to vividly immerse us in India, its people, its customs, and its geography—both of the land and the mind. Because I had just read The Space Between Us and The Weight of Heaven, I made a point of attending a panel she sat on at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Denver last month. She is impressive in person, too.
The Space Between Us dives into the chasm between our lived relationships with people from different classes or ethnic groups and the preconceived ideas or unthinking reactions we all carry forward from our childhoods about race, class, and difference.
Focusing on two women who live dramatically different lives in modern-day India, Umrigar casts them in sharp, telling detail. She is a master of showing rather than “telling” her readers what to pay attention to and she knows the landscape of Indian culture like the back of her hand. The two women in the story are close friends in spite of their differences: Sera Dubash is an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose comparatively privileged surroundings camouflage the reality of her abusive marriage, and Bhima is her stoic illiterate maid, worn into compliance by a life of despair, loss, and poverty. Bhima has worked in Sera’s household for more than 20 years. For each woman the other is her closest friend; each is isolated within her particular circumstances from other intimate relationships, but each also knows the other’s secrets and deepest trials. Despite their closeness, throughout the book we see flashes of class barriers, ingrained prejudices each is not comfortable crossing—Sera, for example, cannot accept Bhima sitting on a chair at her table or drinking from a household cup.
When Bhima’s granddaughter, her last living relative, who she prayed would complete an education and escape the slums, returns home pregnant, Bhima’s feelings fluctuate between rage and despair. Sera is there for her, as Bhima was for her when she suffered at the hand of her cruel husband and devious mother-in-law, but, again, the hand of fate cranks the wheel and Thrity Umrigar exposes the complexity and flawed nature of human beings. A poignant and compelling story brought to us by one of the finest writers of our time.
For more about this book:
Book Club Girl interviews Thrity Umrigar online: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/book-club-girl/2008/05/22/book-club-girl-talks-to-thrity-umrigar-author-of-the-space-between-us
For more about the author: http://www.umrigar.com
-- Rosemary Carstens
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