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[403] The Space Between Us – Thrity Umrigar

” My whole life is a dark thought. ” (24,296)

In The Space Between Us, Thrity Umrigar has created two very sympathetic characters, despite their class divide, that enlighten the complex culture and tradition of India and render them more comprehensible. Set in modern-day India, against the backdrop of a “slum-dog millionaire” Mumbai, where the life of the privileged is harshly measured against the life of the powerless, the novel gains strength in both its language and plot.

Sera is upper-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage. She does not miss her late husband’s sudden flare-up and the beatings, nor does she savor her own cowering servility. She endures verbal abuses from her mother-in-law, who accuses her of contaminating her house and bringing bad luck with her monthly period. Bhima, her servant for over twenty years, s the sole confident of Sera’s humiliation, and her hypocrisy of pretending all is well in her marriage.

[Bhima] is tired of it all—tired of this endless cycle of death and birth, tired of investing any hope in the next generation, tired and frightened of finding more human beings to love, knowing full well that every person she loves will someday wound her, hurt her, break her with their deceit, their treachery, their fallibility, their sheer humanity. (8,94)

To Bhima, whose husband abandoned her and daughter died of AIDS, her whole life is a dark thought, an incessant cycle of misery, fueled by misfortune and poverty. At the beginning of the novel, Bhima’s latest disaster is her granddaughter’s disgraceful pregnancy, which will derail her college education and ruin her future. As the old woman weathers her latest domestic crisis, with the help of Sera, the story also takes a path of retrospection to reveal the stories of the two women and their struggles in natural arcs. Miseries in their lives have brought them together, forming the solid foundation of a friendship beyond one between master and servant. However intricately their lives are connected, the strong bonds of womanhood are eternally opposed by divisions of class, caste, and culture. Sera recognizes her affinity to Bhima, but her affection for her servant wars with the ingrained, culturally-prescribed prejudice against lower castes. There’s always an invisible space they have to observe and maintain.

This is what Sera appreciates most about Bhima—this unspoken language, this intimacy that has developed between them over the years. (2,17)

The secret of loneliness. How to live with it, how to wrap it around your body and still be able to make beautiful, colorful things, like he did with those balloons. (12,133)

As the novel unfolds the women’s private history and the mystery of Maya’s pregnancy drives to a shocking denouement (which challenges Sera and Bhima’s friendship), Umrigar shows us that regardless of wealth, class, and color, life’s misery and caprice are available to us all—they do not discriminate. What really makes The Space Between Us a memorable book is the disturbing portrayal of a jolting, momentary world that is full of illusion and false hope. Sera and Bhima, reigned over by the inveterate old ways, are women who turn their rage and sadness on themselves. The novel also shows a country caught in the waves of changes, widening the gap between those who have and those have not. It exposes the moral decadence and the ultimate lack of fairness with cruel accuracy. It’s a poignant book that illuminates on the irony that emotional investment, which makes humanity, is what makes one tired of life.

321 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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20 Responses

  1. I’ve loved every book this author has written. This one was my first by her and my favorite. Glad u enjoyed it as well.

    • This is my first book by Umrigar. She’s very observant and passionate writer, so passionate about her characters. It leaves a big scar in heart after I finish it.

  2. I have wanted to read this for awhile. It sounds very atmospheric and cultural.

    • The book goes into details some of the Indian traditions and superstitions that Westerns would deem grotesque. The class divide and gender prejudice form the backbone of the plot. It’s a well-crafted book. A few reviewers have commented on Umrigar’s style that has compromises the momentum of the story. I have no such feeling.

  3. I was equally moved by this story….wonderful review!

  4. I have tried two other books by this author. First Darling of the Morning, her memoir, I set aside because something about her tone really bothered me. The Weight of Heaven I didn’t like at all. But, I have heard again and again that The Space Between Us is excellent. I picked up a used copy not long ago and do want to give it a try. Your review makes it sound like something I’d very much enjoy reading.

    • You might be referring to her brusque and blunt tone. I find the tone appropriate in the dialogue between the upper-middle class mistress who, despite her emotional affinity, has to maintain a distance from her illiterate, lower class servant. The book,although it’s very sad and haunting, is an enjoyable read. To me it nearly boils down the social psyche and injustice that exists not only in India but in our world at large into these two characters.

  5. sigh, and i just weeded this out of the collection, too. i saw her do an appearance at a library conference beside lynda barry and i have to say i felt badly for her. she was clearly a very articulate, smart writer but she was so introverted and kind of paled besides big, boisterous, crazy-out-there lynda. i wish the organizers hadn’t paired them; I probably would have learned more about her (and kept the galley I picked up) in another setting.

    • From the P.S. sections at the end of the novel, Umrigar seems like a very thoughtful writer. The book is quietly observant and yet evocative of the class divide and social injustice in India.

  6. Beautiful review as usual. This sounds really wonderful in an emotionally wren thing way.

  7. Wonderful review. I had this book from the library once, but did not manage to read it back then. Will have to check it out again at some point.

  8. All her books are so good at the family saga/relationships thing. I never ever got tired of reading her.

  9. I have had this author on my radar for awhile. Your review makes me sad that I haven’t gotten my hands on one of these books before now.

    • Umrigar was all over the radar when The Space Between Us first came out. I wasn’t sure because I’m cautious about a very popular book. This one is a solid read as it gains strength in both the story and its language.

  10. […] by Francesca Kay (scheduled to release Jan 2012),  The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar. Share this:StumbleUponRedditPrintMoreTwitterFacebookEmailDiggLike this:LikeBe […]

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