The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar
Published April 2009 by Harper Collins
Source: the publisher and TLC Book Tours
Frank and Ellie Benton have built a wonderful life for themselves, the center of which is their son, seven-year-old Benny. But when Benny dies of a sudden illness that comes on while Frank is out of the country, their lives are shattered. Frank blames Ellie for going to sleep even though she knew Benny was sick; Ellie blames Frank for not being at home when it happened.
When a job opportunity arises in India, Frank is hesitant at first but Ellie looks at it as their chance to get away from all of the constant reminders of Benny. They soon find themselves plunked in Girbaug, India, nothing more than a village. The "cottage" they live in is tended to by a couple who live on the grounds, Prakash and Edna, along with their son, Ramesh. Although nothing like Benny, Ramesh's intelligence and vivacity capture Frank and he becomes more and more caught up in caring for Ramesh. First he begins tutoring Ramesh every night, then they are going for runs every morning, and soon Ramesh is even taken along on a trip to Mumbai, against Prakash's strong objections. Edna is only too glad for the attention to her son, feeling that everything Frank is doing will benefit him; Prakash becomes more and more jealous of the things that Frank and Ellie can offer that he cannot.
Ellie falls in love with India. She makes a dear friend, volunteers in the local clinic and tries to really understand the people. It isn't as easy for Frank, who is in charge of an American-owned factory that harvests the leaves from a tree that only grows locally, to use it to make a drug to treat diabetes. He must deal with worker demands, corrupt institutions and a village that is angry that the forest that they believe is theirs has been leased to the Americans by their government.
You know you're in for a treat when the first few sentences of the prologue grab you:
"A few days after Benny's death, Ellie and Frank Benton broke into separate people. Although they didn't know it then. At that time, all they could do was concentrate on getting through each bewildering day, fighting to suppress the ugly memories that burst to the surface like fish above water."
A few pages later, this description of where they were almost two years later, as they sat on their porch in India:
"It was a contrast to most of their interactions these days, which were laced with bitterness and unspoken accusations. He knew he was losing Ellie, that she was slipping out of his hands like the sand that lay just beyond the front yard, but he seemed unable to prevent the slow erosion. What she wanted from him - forgiveness - he could not grant her. What he wanted from her - his son back - she couldn't give."
Their situation was so real to me. Umrigar made me understand the emotions that Frank and Ellie were experiencing. In the middle of the book, Umrigar takes readers back to the time when Benny got sick. Frank, who was in Bangkok, must fly back to Ann Arbor, Michigan. When he gets there, he is picked up by his brother and a friend. As they talk to Frank about Benny's condition, it hits Frank how close to death Benny really is.
"His task was to sweep out of his mind the debris of Scott's words. He was so involved in this benign task that he heard the awful sounds coming from his mouth at the same time the other two did and was therefore as startled as they were. He sounded like an animal with a bullet in its leg, which is how he felt, wounded, crippled, helpless."
"The sounds that came out of him were old as the world itself. He had never known that the human voice was capable of this range. He knew he was worrying Scott, felt he should reassure him, but human speech seemed beyond his ability at the moment. He was gripped by a fear so large it was swallowing him alive. It felt almost prehistoric, existential."
Ellie begins to understand that she must move on with her life: "...she would not let herself believe that grief was a tribute to her dead son, that she was honoring his memory by not living a full life." But Frank has only substituted Ramesh for Benny and he begins to fall apart, unable to work at all when Prakash takes Ramesh away for a few days, going so far as to involve the police. Five days after their return:
"...Frank was still smarting from the insolence of the man [Prakash]. Prakash had wandered back home as if he'd had every right to take off with his son. And now he acted as if he was completely oblivious to the havoc he had wreaked - the anxiety he had caused Edna, the expense of the police search, the lost days of work the episode had cost Frank."
I'm sure that by now you have figured out that I loved this book. Umrigar's writing is beautiful, the characters so real, the settings so vivid. I felt that I really came to know these characters and understand what made them tick. Umrigar is also able to incorporate bigger ideas into the story: who really owns natural resources, is globalization a good thing, government corruption, and religion.
Umrigar's "The Space Between Us" has been on my radar for some time; it will soon be on my nightstand. I cannot wait to read more works by this wonderful writer. Thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for allowing me to read and review this book.