The Chandaria family—emigrants from the Indian-enclave of Nairobi—have managed to flourish in America. Spanning four generations and three continents, this story illuminates the vast mosaic of cultural divisions and ethical considerations that shape the ways in which we judge one another’s actions.
As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to take stock of the novels from 2019 that we should carry with us into 2020. Acker’s is one such novel ... What is home? In another, less accomplished novel, this question might be answered by heavy-handed expositions on intersectional identity positions. But in Acker’s novel, the question lingers like the scent of a departed lover, illuminating the past through the warm flow of memory and pressing on the conflicts of the present like the dull ache of a forgotten wound ... What is perhaps even more noteworthy than Acker’s feat in creating emotional and textual space for a difficult woman is the fact that all but one of her central characters are brown. It’s very rare to see a white novelist take on the lives of immigrants with such sensitivity and insight. Acker’s formidable research into the little-known world of Indian immigrants in Kenya is apparent in the many small details of her novel ... It’s an act of great courage to write a story that is not one’s own, and to write it with dexterity and finesse is simply a magnificent achievement.
The complexity of the novel lies in how Acker skillfully reveals the various ways that we can feel invisible: personally, culturally, geographically, and historically ... Urmila’s elderly father orates the history of his people in passages woven throughout the narrative that add an important and engrossing dimension to this saga, his quiet, colloquial voice creating lyrical interludes in an otherwise straightforward tale ... The idea of place is central to the novel and is its strength...Acker excels at using setting to enhance our understanding of the Chandaria family. Her writing about place is not only lovely, but also suggestive of deeper psychological states ... Whether we are in a tiny Boston apartment, a house in suburban Ohio, on the streets of Nairobi, or in the house-turned-museum of a famous writer, we are acutely aware of the influence of our surroundings on our being. I wished for more of this: nuanced and imaginative sentences — rather than dialogue and summary — that lead readers to gradual revelations ... There is quite a lot going on in this book. To Acker’s credit, she doesn’t let it get out of hand. At times, however, the energy is drained, especially in the long sections concerning Sunil’s philosophical musings ... I suspect that Jennifer Acker is an emerging novelist to keep an eye on, one in conversation with writers like Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, and Tessa Hadley. One who is paying close attention to the ways in which we manage to live, love, and transcend the limits of the world.
Suffice to say that no relationship in this novel is easy, and each narrator is deeply flawed yet clearly shaped by their upbringing and the pressures their surroundings placed upon them ... Acker’s novel is deeply empathetic and, with one exception—the character of Amy—presents wonderfully complicated humanity. Amy is a blond, secular Jew who likely has enjoyed a white woman’s privileges throughout her life, giving her the kind of safety that her husband doesn’t have and that she herself never acknowledges. Despite her presence for much of the unfolding family drama, she’s seemingly near perfect, barely cracking under the pressure of in-laws who find her unsuitable. Acker draws the foibles, joys and prejudices of the other characters so carefully, it’s especially unfortunate that Amy lacks nuance and complexity. On the whole, however, The Limits of the World is a successful exploration of love, family, migration and the emotional distances we can and cannot cross.