Suffice it to say, Frank Benton, head of operations in Girbaug, India, for NaturalSolutions herbal remedies, is having a bad day.
“As he jumped out of the vehicle under the protection of the umbrella Satish was holding out for him, Frank felt unreal, had the feeling of being trapped in one of those movies based on a Graham Greene novel,” Thrity Umrigar writes in her powerful new novel, The Weight of Heaven.
Suspecting your life could have been written by Greene would be enough to send me running for the nearest airport, but Frank and Ellie have already fled once. They moved to India after their little boy died of a sudden illness, in an effort to rebuild, or at least to live in a place that wasn’t steeped in memories of Benny.
“The Arts and Crafts bungalow in Ann Arbor was positively shimmering with mockery.” Ellie held out hope that India could provide healing; Frank was mostly looking for “a country where there was no possibility of running into of his son’s teachers.”
Sixteen months after Benny’s death, the change of scenery hasn’t abated the Bentons’ grief or helped them reunite.
“[Frank] 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.”
There are a few generic opening pages that rely too much on worn out expressions of grief, such as missing “the patter” of Benny’s size four feet. (Note: Not only is this a cliché, but based on daily observation, I’m here to tell you that seven-year-old boys’ feet do not “patter.” Stomp, tromp, skip, run, thunder, splash, kick, and jump – yes. Patter? Not so much.)
But then Umrigar really gets going, and the clichés get brushed off like barnacles on a fast-moving ship. Twisty, brimming with dark humor and keen moral insight, “The Weight of Heaven” packs a wallop on both a literary and emotional level.
Bring along a flashlight – despite the Indian sunshine, you’re going to need it.
Umrigar (“The Space Between Us”) examines the dark moral recesses of one American liberal couple, who can’t seem to cope now that their formerly charmed life has been ripped away.
Frank’s only source of joy is the child of the Bentons’ housekeeper and cook. Nine-year-old Ramesh is bright, athletic, egotistical, and alive, and what starts out as tutoring and basketball lessons slides into a bitter tug-of-war between Frank and Ellie and Ramesh’s father, Prakash.
His mother, Edna, is all for the advantages the Americans can provide her son. Prakash is illiterate and an alcoholic, and Ramesh’s chances for a future commensurate with his intellectual gifts seem dim until Frank comes along.
Umrigar is a master of delineating the ethical lines Frank and Ellie cross, with, at least at first, the best of intentions.
She replaces Greene’s Roman Catholic guilt with secular liberal guilt, and the substitution works just fine. There’s a hideously awkward Christmas celebration – to which Ramesh is invited, while his parents remain in their shack – where Frank gives the boy a new computer. (Prakash can’t even afford a new basketball for his son.)
Outraged by what he sees as the wholesale purchase of his son’s affections, Prakesh takes wire cutters to the machine. Then there’s the scene where Ellie, a psychologist who is usually far more sensitive to the rights of Ramesh’s parents, threatens to fire Prakash if he doesn’t let them take the boy on an already-promised overnight trip to Bombay.