At first, The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar reminded me of The Help. Obviously, given the very different settings, the book was very different as a whole from The Help. But I loved reading about the friendship and lives of two very different women. The book was beautifully written, and although the realistic issues it portrays are not happy ones, the ultimate message of positive self-worth was hopeful.
The Space Between Us centers on the stories of two women, one a servant to the other, who are separated by class and caste. The “space” of the title refers to the unbridgeable gap between the two women, for although they are both Indian women, distinct caste and social traditions forbid the servant, Bhima, from sitting on her mistress Serah’s furniture, eating off of her dishes, and otherwise becoming a friend in Serah’s life, although Bhima considers her mistress her friend. Serah, on the other hand, recognizes Bhima as an important friend in her life and does not recognize the way in which she discriminates, although her discomfort around Bhima sometimes makes her uncomfortable.
As the story opens, Bhima, who has been a servant in Serah’s house for 30 years, confronts her young granddaughter Maya, who is now pregnant. Education had been Bhima’s hope for Maya’s future, and all now seems to be falling apart. Serah, on the other hand, eagerly awaits the arrival of her own first grandchild, and resents the challenge of Maya’s pregnancy in the face of her own happiness; she had been the one to finance Maya’s own education. As the two women come to terms with their own tragic pasts and hope for the future, Bhima finds the space between the two of them, a space based on tradition, education, and discrimination, to be unbridgeable.
I loved The Space Between Us. Ms Umrigar had a beautiful way with words. I loved getting to know the unfamiliar Indian setting, and Ms Umrigar brought me in to the setting with the dialogue, the descriptions, and her clear English. Although the setting was new to me, the familiar themes of friendship versus distance, privacy versus intimacy, and hope for the future versus hopelessness all resonated strongly. Bhima, as a lower class, lower caste, uneducated woman, must come to accept her own self-worth as a human, as a woman, and as a member of society.
*spoiler* I loved the balloonwalla analogy: that one man, although he was alone, found joy or at least satisfaction in creating beauty out of nothing more than air and balloons. He took life as it came, he didn’t pester for customers, and he found peace in his life. I loved Bhima’s tribute to him. If you’ve read the book, I’d love to know what you found the balloonwalla’s message to be. Members of my book club all had different ideas. *end spoiler*
I should also note there is some sexual content in this book; I found it tasteful written.
The Space Between Us wasn’t a happy book (a friend at book club wondered “Are there any happy books about India?”) but it gave hope. To me, that was satisfying.
Note: The Space Between Us was published by WilliamMorrow (HarperCollins) in 2005.