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The Space Between Us: A Novel Paperback – Deckle Edge, May 3, 2011
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Poignant, evocative, and unforgettable, The Space Between Us is an intimate portrait of a distant yet familiar world. Set in modern-day India, it is the story of two compelling and achingly real women: Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage, and Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, who has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years. A powerful and perceptive literary masterwork, author Thrity Umrigar's extraordinary novel demonstrates how the lives of the rich and poor are intrinsically connected yet vastly removed from each other, and how the strong bonds of womanhood are eternally opposed by the divisions of class and culture.
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This book is disturbing, heartbreaking — not a fun read — but one I couldn’t put down. We meet two women in India, each in very different economic and social situations, but both suffering from a lack of power and control in their lives. One appears to have it all, the other appears to have nothing. Both have been through very hard times, and there are more bad times to come. They have been friends for many, many years, but one is the other’s lowly servant. In common they have their survival instincts, their resiliency, and their friendship. They will have choices to make, but in the end, really, they have no choice. Each must continue to be who she has been all along.
This is a shocking and painful story, very sincere, very real. It is impossible not to care for and care about these two women. I very highly recommend it, but I must warn in advance that the ending is unsatisfying and unrealistic. Still worth reading? Yes, emphatically, yes. The fact is, I don’t know how else to end the book. People’s stories don’t end as long as they are living, so perhaps the book really shouldn’t have an ending either.
I think the total, jarring, uncomfortable disconnect I experienced as a middle class American reading this would have been too much, the reading experience would have dissolved into disbelief and affronted wrath, the characters would have seemed to caricatured, too cut-out in their overwhelming passions and the mens' tragic flaws too glaringly obvious.
But in Boo's description of the daily fight for life in Annawadi, there is the backstory behind Umrigar's character, Bhima.
Bhima lives in a slum, but for decades has been the loyal servant of Sera, a rich Parsi lady who has been a kind of patron to Bhima's daughter and grand-daughter even while hiding the physical and mental abuse dished out by her rich husband.
Only now the husband is dead, Bhima's husband is gone, and the two ladies only really have each other in which to put their faith, memories, and tears.
You think you know where this is going, but then Umrigar constantly reminds us throughout the story that this is no wide-eyed naive American "we're all in this together" kind of story. This ain't Stockett's The Help and even there will be no younger generation that will redeem the sins of the older.
Sera drinks tea in a chair at a table, but she expects Bhima to crouch on the floor to drink her own tea. Sera is disgusted by Bhima's physicality and can't bear for her to touch things Sera uses. So despite the similarities between the two women, they couldn't be farther apart because of class.
And the years of familiarity and caring are slowly peeled back to reveal iron-clad prejudice when Bhima's grand daughter finds herself pregnant and won't tell who the father is. Bhima's dreams of her granddaughter's leaving the slums are dashed, and little by little her life unravels.
Would I have enjoyed this book as much if I didn't have the slum-backstory of The Beautiful Forever uppermost in my mind? Maybe not. But even on the purely cultural and prose level, the way Umrigar interlaces the dialogue with words from (pardon the ignorance) different East Indian languages, as well as the playful changing of English words like "drama-fama" flavors the text with a unique sense of place I haven't encountered in other books of this ilk. It juxtaposes philosophical musings with almost immature-sounding heckling of eachother by the characters.
But as I said, if you're middle class american, be prepared to be challenged. Umrigar's characters are flawed, tragically flawed, and each one bears the seed of their own destruction. And the men. Yikes. It's pretty clear that the male characters are the albatross around the necks of the women fighting to break free of the flotsam and jetsam of the crowded, frantic life in Bombay.
Definitely worth reading, but I highly recommend reading Boo's book first.
Most recent customer reviews
Would not recommend, too depressing and left you with an unfinished feeling.