While immigration is a much-discussed topic in the United States, it’s easy to forget how much of it occurs all over the world, every day. As of 2017, according to a United Nations report, 258 million people worldwide — or one in every 30 — were living outside the country where they were born. Jennifer Acker, who grew up in Maine, has placed migration and the complex effects it has on individuals at the center of her debut novel, “The Limits of the World.”

Cover courtesy of Delphinium

The novel focuses on several characters, with chapters alternating among their points of view: Urmila and Premchand, both Gujarati Indians in origin but born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya; their son, Sunil, born in the United States after his parents immigrated to Columbus, Ohio; and Urmila’s father, who fleshes out these characters’ pasts by narrating their collective origin story. This origin story, interspersed throughout the book, tells of Urmila’s father’s migration to Kenya to work on the Uganda railway the British colonizers were building at the turn of the 20th century as they and other European powers scrambled to gain control of the vast continent.

“The men working on the rail line were sick all the time: malaria, scurvy, jiggers hatching in their feet and hands,” Acker writes in his voice. “On any day, half the men were laid out flat. When the water is strained from mud, what can you do? It is a miracle anyone survived.”

Early in the book, Sunil learns that his cousin, Bimal, who lives in Nairobi with his wife, toddler daughter, and the support of the extended family, is actually his brother. It turns out that soon after moving to the United States, Urmila had left Premchand and returned to Kenya, unhappy and lonely. Upon discovering she was pregnant, her family convinced her to give the child to a brother and his wife to raise as their own before she went back to the States to try to make her marriage work. When Bimal is badly injured in a car accident while Urmila and Premchand are in Kenya for business, Urmila demands that Sunil fly over at once to be with the family in their time of need.

But Sunil, who hasn’t been to Kenya since he was a teenager, and hasn’t seen his parents in a long while either, is reluctant to go. A floundering doctor of philosophy student at Harvard, Sunil is far more American than Indian or Kenyan — partly by choice, by distancing himself from his family, but partly from circumstance. Sunil was sent to a private school, where most of his classmates were white; spent little time with his doctor father, Premchand, who was always working; and had an overbearing mother in Urmila, who, miserable and frustrated, alternately confided in Sunil and terrorized him with her emotional outbursts. Still, he does join his parents in Kenya, along with his new wife, Amy.

Much happens during this visit in Kenya, but to expand on it would be to spoil how the novel unfolds. 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.


Urmila, perhaps the least likable, is also the most complicated, her life shaped by resentment. As a woman, she was never respected by her brothers, who took over her father’s store, though she, too, had a passion for the work. As a wife, she was never happy with Premchand’s workload. As a mother, she wants the best for Sunil but can’t understand him, and she cannot forgive or forget being forced to give up her firstborn. When tragedy strikes, she resents the world.

“After each remembering she expected to feel some change, some reconfiguration of the harsh world, the way its brightness and loudness hurt her eyes and ears, but she did not,” Acker writes. “She waited for change, but it did not come. Or perhaps she could not recognize it. Or maybe she was beyond change; change was something that happened now to other people. She would remain herself, alone inside her skin, as she always had.”

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.

Ilana Masad is a book critic and fiction writer working on her doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her debut novel, “All My Mother’s Lovers,” is forthcoming from Dutton in summer 2020. 

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