Title: The Space Between Us: A Novel
Author: Thrity Umrigar
Release Date: January 10, 2006
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Literary Fiction, Multicultural Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 out of 5
Sera is a Parsi, a Persian woman living in modern-day Bombay. Her husband, Feroz, has been dead for a few years, and she now lives with her daughter Dinaz and Dinaz’ husband. She tries to keep as low a profile as possible, not wanting to inflict on her daughter the suffering that she received at her mother-in-law’s hands.
Bhima is Sera’s housekeeper and has been for years. She knows each member of the family intimately and loves them as if they were her own. When Bhima’s seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Maya, becomes pregnant, Bhima is fearful for the young woman’s future. Desperate, she asks Sera for help. Maya’s pregnancy will be the catalyst for change in all of their lives, though none of them realize it.
I love Thrity Umrigar. She writes beautifully, telling the most vivid and heartbreaking stories. The Space Between Us was the last book of hers I hadn’t yet read, and I knew my expectations were high. Even without all the positive reviews I’ve read of it, I’d still expect great things, just because it’s by Thrity Umrigar. And with The Space Between Us, once again, she blew me away.
Most Indian middle and upper class households these days have a Bhima. It’s a way of life, and they don’t really think about it. In fact, in the notes at the back of the book, Umrigar says that Bhima is real. Umrigar makes the reader see these women, to understand their hardships through Bhima. Bhima has had so many disappointments in her life that it makes the reader wonder how she finds the strength to get out of bed every day. The fact that Maya, Bhima’s one real hope, has found herself in this situation only adds to her grief. Though Bhima is angry, she never feels sorry for herself. She considers herself lucky to have found a steady job with Sera’s family. She appreciates that they treat her as a person, even if she is required to eat separately, using separate utensils from the family. For her, this is how life is and she doesn’t expect anything different.
Sera, on the other hand, has had a privileged life financially. On the surface, it seems like she doesn’t know what suffering is. But just because she’s never done a backbreaking day’s work like Bhima doesn’t mean her life is golden. Sera’s husband, Feroz, was physically and emotionally abusive. The ghosts of his slaps, pinches, and beatings still haunt Sera, even years after his death. She finds delight in her daughter Dinaz, just as Bhima’s source of happiness is Maya. Bhima is the only one who has seen how Feroz treated Sera, and thus knows Sera’s secrets. She has become part of the family, or so Sera claims. But secretly, Sera is disgusted knowing that Bhima comes from the slums and will never be able to think of her as an equal.
These two women are so broken emotionally, and they could find solace in one another. Yet their class differences, that one is a wealthy widow living in a grand house while the other cleans that house and lives in the slums, keep them apart. The fact that they are so similar in many ways only highlights the space between them. The reader hopes that Sera will reach out to Bhima and try to connect with her on their common ground because they really could help one another. But, unfortunately, that isn’t the way that class works.
The Space Between Us is also very well written. Umrigar is an exceptionally talented writer. Her prose is beautiful and her words convey deep emotion so well, to the point that the reader cannot help but feel what the characters are feeling. She also is amazing at building vivid, three dimensional characters. Bhima has the reader’s sympathy from the start, even though she is bitter about events from her past. She lashes out sometimes, unable to contain the bile within her, yet the reader forgives her because they understand what she’s been through. Sera is a little more difficult to sympathize with, as her flaw is not being able to see past class boundaries. Still, the reader can’t help but feel for what she’s been through with her husband and mother-in-law.
This novel is an incredible read. Umrigar’s fully realized characters, beautiful writing, and vivid descriptions make India come to life for the reader. Though this book is gutwrenching and heartbreaking, it also leaves the reader with some semblance of hope, with the belief that one day, things will be better. It’s an amazing piece of literary fiction that I cannot praise highly enough.
Other books by Thrity Umrigar: