The Space Between Us, by Thrity Umrigar

Last week I mentioned books that were excellent until it came to the ending. Here's one of them. Set in contemporary Bombay, this novel explores the relationship between a middle-class woman and her servant. Bhima is the center of the story: through her eyes we see what it is like to be poor and a woman in Bombay: the sights and smells of the slum where she lives with her granddaughter, the slights of working in a home where she has to use her own separate dish and utensils and is not allowed to sit anywhere but on the floor, the callous ease with which men trick and betray her.

This is no polemic. Umrigar's measured yet evocative language lays out Bhima's life without violins or trumpets in the background, no phony attempts to arouse easy sympathy or anger. The story alone is sufficient for that. I don’t know much about India, but I do know what it is to be a woman living in poverty. Umrigar gets it right: the small treats (an onion to dress up dinner), the refusal to be a part of your surroundings, the frantic if futile attempts at a better life for the children.

My book club agreed in our admiration for Bhima's strength, our outrage at the prejudice she encounters, and our heartache at the despair she feels looking at her pregnant granddaughter. One woman said she doubted that she herself would be able to be so strong, though of course you don't know what you're capable of until tried. Bhima's relationship with her employer, Sera, was the most interesting part of the story to us. The two women work together at the household chores and, as women do, talk about their families. Sera's neighbors warn her that she is asking for trouble by pampering her servant, but Sera cares for Bhima and struggles to negotiate this friendship that can never be a true friendship because of their inequality.

Umrigar's nuanced account of this relationship is perfect. It reminded me of Baltimore fifty years ago when many if not most middle-class white families had a maid or even two. At the time, there weren't many other employment opportunities for women of color, of course. A few years ago, a woman in a nursing home complained to me about how awful it was that young women were choosing not to go into domestic service. Why would they? I thought. She extolled the relationship she'd had with her maids, how generous she'd been to them, the way she could talk with them about things she couldn't talk about with her peers. “They were my best friends,” she said. I wanted to tell her that it was not that simple, but realised there wasn’t much point in arguing with someone so close to the end of her life. She has passed away now, or I would give her this book to read.

Umrigar sustains the excellence until the last few pages of the book, where she gives in to what seems to me a pasted-on ending, a phony epiphany. Members of my book club suggested it was from the need for closure or maybe for a Hollywood-happy ending. Some were glad for both, but others agreed that the trite ending disappointed after the complexity of the story.

Oh, and I also hated the prologue, which was a chunk of the ending copied and stuck in front of the story. I’ve mentioned before how much I hate this technique, which seems to have become only too common lately, as I mentioned in my blog about Water for Elephants. A very few authors are able to use a prologue effectively—Reginald Hill's Goodbye, Midnight comes to mind—but more often it signals that the author is incapable of creating sufficient suspense with the story itself and needs to trick you into reading the remainder of the book. Unnecessary in this case. The story would have been sufficient, and infinitely better without the prologue and the ending.

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