Jennifer Acker’s debut The Limits of the World is a ruminative and insightful look at the way in which choices play out over several generations within a family’s timeline. The subject matter calls to mind Pachinko, and the book will also draw inevitable comparisons to Jhumpa Lahiri.
The Chandaria family, Indians who’ve settled in Ohio by way of Nairobi, are thriving–in theory. Patriarch Premchand, a gentle and benignly negligent doctor, has long devoted his attention to his practice. His wife, Urmila, runs a business importing Kenyan crafts that we soon learn is a boondoggle designed to keep her occupied. Their son, Sunil, is pursuing a Harvard Ph.D. in philosophy, but he cannot finish his dissertation.
Sunil’s girlfriend, Amy, quickly becomes his fiancé in order to secure a new apartment from a disapproving landlady. Sunil fears that his family will protest this marriage, and Amy’s parents, who have embraced Orthodox Judaism, are unlikely to sanction it. They elope right before Sunil fields a devastating phone call in which he learns that his cousin, Bimil, is actually his older brother. What’s more, Bimal has been in a serious car accident. Sunil is thus summoned to Nairobi, where Bimal has been raised and lives. Sunil confesses to his parents that he must bring Amy, too, seeing as she’s now his wife.
Sunil’s dissertation centers on how we can relate to and judge other people in the absence of a universal system of ethics. Accordingly, using shifting viewpoints, Acker’s plot sets up a web of cultural, generational and religious tensions that allow questions of morality to play out. For example, Urmila chafes at the habits and norms of her adopted country, wondering “…how far apart Americans stand in line! What were they worried about, a little sneeze blowing their way?”
Urmila is by far the most prickly of Acker’s characters, having few friends and regarding her son and husband–as well as most people–largely with disdain. As she once asked Sunil regarding his Ph.D.: “‘Why all this schooling?… You were never in the smart set.’” Acker has set up interesting foils to Urmila in Sunil. Acker describes Sunil by saying, “He loved spring, the pulsing, daily greening of the world.” This earthy and loving description is even more enhanced in Acker’s descriptions of Amy, who once caused a traffic jam on a sidewalk and “…managed to make everyone laugh at her folly, at their joint chaos… like [she was] the ringleader of a small, beautiful circus of the everyday.”
In the Chandarias, Acker convincingly brings to life individuals who have been displaced multiple times, who’ve cast aside rituals and have grown apart from each other in ways both subtle and obvious. Amy’s situation as the daughter of newly-radicalized parents underscores this sense of dislocation. Acker is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Common, a literary magazine that focuses on how place and culture mold us, and she clearly feels a deep connection to this topic. Between the longer chapters, we find bits of family folklore about the transition from India to Africa: “Here, on the plains… they stayed awake at night by telling stories, the stories of Shiva and Parvati and Ganesh… Around their fear, they wound words like bandages.”
Acker’s lyrical book raises complex questions about assimilation, progress and tradition, as well as the pull of familial duties and the drive for self-fulfillment. The Limits of the World is a satisfying and meaty debut that will impress readers with studious observations about family life and its myriad complications.
The Limits of the World is now available to purchase.
ABOUT JENNIFER ACKER:
JENNIFER ACKER is founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Common magazine. Her short stories, translations, and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, Literary Hub, n+1, Guernica, Ploughshares and other places. Forthcoming from Amazon Original Stories in 2019 is a long personal essay. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and teaches literature, creative writing and editing at Amherst College, where she also directs the Literary Publishing Program.
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