Thrity Umrigar’s The Weight of Heaven is perhaps one of my favorite novels I have read in the past couple of years. It’s a hefty book as the title suggests, especially as is routed through the ethics of globalization. What makes this book a success is the absolute conviction with which we believe the bereavement of the main characters, Frank and Ellie Benton, who lose their son, Benny, to a tragic bout with meningitis. When Frank has the opportunity to work at a different location in the multinational corporation known as HerbalSolutions, Ellie encourages him to take it so that they can make a fresh start somewhere else, without the ghost of Benny following them around. Ellie, who was charged with taking care of Benny in the “housewife” role, suffers guilt over the loss, but living in India for a year and half changes her and she begins to see a way out of the depths of despair. Frank, on the other hand, has taken to “replacement” therapy with the local married couple, Prakash and Edna, who are hired to help around the house, and whose son, Ramesh, becomes the object of Frank’s attention. The plot is partially catalyzed by Frank’s growing obsession with mentoring and fathering Ramesh despite Prakash’s growing resentment of Frank’s presence. Frank, in particular, wields a particular influence over Ramesh as he encourages the young boy to study hard so that one day Ramesh might be able to study in America. Ellie, on the other hand, spends her time at the local clinic, offering what services she can with her expertise in psychology, having earned a doctorate in that area. Ellie has also made friends with Nandita, a journalist, and finds that particular relationship fruitful for finding a renewed interest in her life. However, all is not well at HerbalSolutions as Frank discovers a major player in a unionizing effort has been killed, leading factory workers to voice dismay and rumble for the potential to strike.
The “weight” of the novel is held together by Umrigar’s very steady narrative style, which at one point jumps backward about ten years, providing the background to Frank and Ellie’s relationship. We begin to see how important each of them are to the other and how their relationship changes in the midst of the birth of their son. The clarity with which this connection is presented makes the novel move forward effortlessly even despite the fact that the plot does not cohere around major cataclysmic events. Further, the subplot related to HerbalSolutions continually demonstrates the ways in which individual characters are not always aware of the extensive networks that make globalization so threatening and problematic. Indeed, as local villagers find their supply of trees sold to HerbalSolutions, they are left without an important economic and health resource that was once available to them, irreparably changing lives in the process.
As I was reading this book, I suppose I’m also reminded that I tend to like “naturalistic” narratives, moving inexorably toward some tragic conclusion and Umrigar’s novel does not disappoint in that regard. With the set-up being provided so early on related to Frank’s incredible myopia regarding Ramesh and his own sense of loss, we know that no good can come of his constant desire to father the young boy. And yet, even then, and even given the many, many flaws that Umrigar represents and codes into Frank, we can’t help also to paradoxically sympathize with him when everything seems to be lost. In this difficult but nevertheless poignant space of ambivalence, the novel hits a perfect stride. Despite it’s relatively longer length, it is something I will definitely teach in the future; this is the perfect book for courses on Asian American literature, and transnationalism.
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