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Dispatches from the Land of the Very Broad Stroke: Thrity Umrigar

Received Fictions and Other Persiflage

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Space Between Us
Thrity Umrigar
William Morrow

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

Behind its veil of gritty social realism, The Space Between Us is a soap-operatic beach read in disguise. Like a Sunday New York Times reader?s sobering glance through the Week in Review before flipping over to the Sunday Styles section or the wedding announcements, paragraphs spent in a Bombay slum or an AIDS clinic in Delhi serve as brief preludes to a veritable Indian Peyton Place of dirty little secrets and lies. The two main characters ? Sera, a wealthy housewife, and Bhima, her servant ? are separated by class and caste, but joined by bonds of affection and loyalty. There?s an abusive husband, an alcoholic husband, and a cheating husband; an insanely cruel mother-in-law and a saintly, self-sacrificing daughter-in-law. And then there?s the pregnant, unmarried granddaughter: she won?t say who fathered her child, gets railroaded into an abortion and provides a final plot twist worthy of Desperate Housewives.

Thrity Umrigar has an experienced journalist?s eye for the human-interest angle that best illustrates the real-world impact of social and political problems, and she uses it to her advantage in this tale. The plight of Bhima and her granddaughter, Maya ? their living conditions, their limited and fragile hopes for the future, the way other characters treat and respond to them ? does more to describe changing attitudes toward women in India than a hundred pages of statistics would.

Nonetheless, the book has its shortcomings. While the main female characters, Sera and Bhima, are fully rendered and believable, the characters that surround them are less so ? sometimes much less so: Sera?s wicked husband and evil mother-in-law have the two-dimensional feel of fairy-tale villains. This makes it difficult to sympathize with Sera at times: any sensible person would be able to predict the actions of both mother and son ? and the reader certainly can ? but Sera seems continually astonished by her mother-in-law?s cruelty and her husband?s violent temper. And the aforementioned final plot twists depends on one character suddenly behaving in a manner that is completely inconsistent with anything else the reader knows about him, leaving one a bit puzzled and unsatisfied.

Umrigar?s slightly awkward way with language can be distracting as well. At points her words seem to turn on her, not quite accomplishing what she asks of them ? as when Sera, at a moment of intense self-reflection, can?t quite express to her husband how ?certain notes of the Moonlight Sonata shredded her heart like wind inside a paper bag.? So?wind inside a paper bag shreds her heart? Is there something sad about wind in a paper bag, or does she actually mean that the wind shreds the bag and the bag is like Sera?s heart? Probably the latter, but then we are left with the loose end of the Moonlight Sonata, which is difficult to imagine as a shredder of anything at all. Or when Bhima realizes how hate ?soured everything, as if it were a lime squeezed over the world.? Hey, that doesn?t sound so bad! Let?s make hate margaritas!

But Umrigar leaves the reader with a sense of Bombay that is utterly contemporary and untouched with any taint of wistful exoticism. Her Bombay is a city like any other, inhabited by people who experience the currents of global change at a distance, as we all do. When her heroine finds redemption, as soap opera heroines always do, the story rises above both its journalistic and its soap-operatic currents to deliver a simple, heartfelt message of hope and freedom.


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