“Sleeping on Jupiter” by Anuradha Roy is a fascinating novel told over the course of 18 days. The sections switch perspectives between a cast of characters whose lives intersect in the small seaside town of Jarmuli, India, a place known for its temples and also its water’s deadly undertow.
In the first chapter, something of a prologue, we are introduced to Nomi, a young girl whose life is violently disrupted by “the war,” which causes an abrupt separation from her family. She, along with other girls, is eventually taken on a boat “further and further away” from the shore until there is “nothing but water and sky.”
This state of dislocation and disorientation (also embodied by a sleeper train to Jarmuli in the next chapter) is one that moves through each of the characters as they struggle quietly in the small, relentless, emotionally solitary waves of their lives.
As the novel unfolds, Nomi — plus five grandmother-aged women on their first trip together, a tour guide and a photographer — uncomfortably cross paths as the town’s secret past of religious patriarchy and sexual violence is slowly revealed.
The beach and the ocean become important spaces in the novel. Here they are liminal scapes of ragged intimacies, lost communication and the rough water’s dark current of oblivion, the overpowering pull that promises waders a final relief from pain and regret.
Roy writes beautifully. Western readers looking for the “exotic,” “colorful” and “tragic” Orient full of Hollywood fantasies need to look elsewhere. Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”) is, thankfully, nowhere to be found. Roy’s style is confident, and she trusts the reader to follow her characters because their paths are compelling; the exploration of the novel’s social territories — sexual abuse, illicit love, the exploitation of the weak by the powerful and the surprising pains of any ordinary life’s bewilderments — is important, without resorting to authorial didacticism.
Roy’s passages are not hot-house atmospheric but cinematic, moving from crisp narration (“Moving to find a better angle, she toppled her umbrella, tipped over her tea and crushed the cup. Her lens was now focused on a monk in the water. He was wearing dark glasses. His long white hair was loose to his shoulders. His chunky fingers were counting beads off a rosary.”) to lyrical passages that communicate the kinetic urgency of a character’s outer and inner journeys: “She got up and started to run down the beach, past the hotels, away from the crowds and into a birch forest, the glow of a burning house in the distance, away from blood streaming down its wall and in her head a girl’s voice cried out again and again.”
The narration gracefully switches between the characters as they begin to encounter one another’s hidden quests and unvoiced desires. Many small narrative moments of surprise and fresh, original language keep the reader engaged. One of the haunting pleasures of this book is how time dilates and refracts, how the stories of the characters act as prisms, illuminating sharp moments of pleasure, recognition and suffering.
Over the course of the story’s 18 days, readers will be moved and changed by this evocative, subtle novel of modern India as it reaches its conclusions told with dark beauty and a dreamlike intensity.
Sun Yung Shin is a Minneapolis writer and author, most recently of the collection “Unbearable Splendor.” Sunyungshin@gmail.com.
Sleeping on Jupiter
By: Anuradha Roy.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 250 pages, $16.
Event: Graywolf Literary Salon, with Solmaz Sharif and Monica Youn. 6 p.m. Sept. 8, Aria, 105 N. 1st St., Mpls. Tickets $30-$150. http://tinyurl.com/zc4kj3v