The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker

Limits of worldThere are many books about family secrets and the toxic effects they have on family life. Many of them are formulaic but fun to read anyway, mainly to see what complications the author has dreamed up. The Limits of the World goes far beyond the formula. I picked it up because of the excellent pre-publication reviews and once I started it, I couldn’t put it down.

The plot is easily explained: Urmila and Premchand Chandaria came to the U.S. from their family home in Nairobi, Kenya. Premchand, a doctor, found satisfying medical work in Ohio and they raised their son, Sunil, there. The secret is that before Sunil there was another son, Bimal, who lives in Kenya with Urmila’s sister and brother-in-law. Sunil was never told he had a brother. Bimal is injured in a car accident and Urmila rushes the family off to Nairobi to see her firstborn. Sunil, a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, has a secret of his own: he is married to Amy, who is not East Indian. Sunil learns that he has a brother; Urmila learns that Sunil has married out of their culture; and Amy finds it difficult to cope with Urmila’s aggressive disapproval.

Acker’s sensitivity to all these concerns is tied together by Sunil’s philosophical studies. He’s working on his dissertation, struggling with his belief that there exists a morality that stands outside of culture. He’s stalled in the writing and Harvard may cut off his funding. All the characters struggle with the choices they’ve made and Acker renders their angst with clarity and compassion. The Kirkus reviewer wrote, “It’s a rare but honest look at the way parents, children, and spouses talk to one another but don’t always hear what’s being said.”

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