In the early 19th century, the Huichol miners, who climbed a thousand feet by ladders every day in the silver mines of Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains, found a way to save energy: They made the ascent in a zigzag motion. This way of proceeding gives a method of organization as well as a title to Anita Desai's new novel, in which she knits together the experiences of both living and dead protagonists, shifting back and forth between the past and the present.

In this book, as in previous novels such as Baumgartner's Bombay and Fasting, Feasting, Desai once again takes up the themes of foreignness and displacement. TheZigzag Way follows Eric, a world-weary recent Harvard graduate and aspiring writer who has just finished his dissertation on immigration patterns in early 20th-century Boston. A bit of a dreamer, he can't muster the enthusiasm to expand his work into a book, so when his live-in girlfriend, Em, is offered a sabbatical in Mexico, he wants to go. Em has misgivings—"You're an Americanist," she tells him—but he isn't dissuaded.

As soon as he steps off the plane, Eric is enchanted by Mexico, "distracted by everything … the booths displaying textiles bright with rainbow stripes and rainbow flowers, tequila bottles shaped like cacti, sweets made out of cacti and fruit … more people with black hair and brown skin than he had ever encountered."

But after the two settle in, Em takes off for the forests of Yucatán with her colleagues to conduct field research; Eric is left alone and without a sense of purpose. He remembers that his grandfather worked in the mines of the Sierra Madre and determines to connect with his ancestry by visiting the town where his grandparents lived—where his grandmother ...

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