The Lim­its of the World

By – August 5, 2019

Ear­ly on in Jen­nifer Acker’s debut nov­el, The Lim­its of the World, Amy says to her hus­band Sunil, Whether your par­ents love you or love you enough is not the only fact about them. It’s impos­si­ble for our par­ents to be irrel­e­vant. What mat­ters is how we deal with them.” This notion of find­ing a bal­ance between inhab­it­ing one’s own ideals and appeas­ing those who have oppos­ing views, those who can­not be cast aside, is the cen­tral ten­sion of the nov­el. It appears in many forms: with Urmi­la and her son, Sunil, who choos­es to pur­sue phi­los­o­phy instead of med­i­cine; with Amy and her par­ents, who become Ortho­dox Jews after rais­ing Amy with­out reli­gion; and with Urmi­la and Prem­c­hand, her hus­band, who choos­es to dis­con­nect from the world he and Urmi­la left in Nairo­bi. In these tense famil­ial dynam­ics, each char­ac­ter is forced to ask them­selves, what am I will­ing to sac­ri­fice to make peace?

The char­ac­ters’ dif­fi­cul­ty in bend­ing from their respec­tive ideals is what makes The Lim­its of the World such a propul­sive read. Their inflex­i­bil­i­ty, their devout belief that their val­ues are the cor­rect ones repeat­ed­ly brings up the ques­tion, can one cul­ture be moral­is­ti­cal­ly supe­ri­or to anoth­er? The argu­ments that fol­low this ques­tion are rich, blunt, and judg­men­tal at times, and although harm­ful in them­selves, are hon­est por­traits of the irra­tional bias­es many peo­ple hold.

Fur­ther­more, Ack­er express­es the sub­tleties of the char­ac­ters’ inflex­i­bil­i­ty: the stiff body lan­guage, the press­ing ques­tions, the unwill­ing­ness to reach out and address their dif­fer­ences. These moments feel trag­i­cal­ly real and mad­den­ing­ly true. They’re a reveal­ing and pre­cise exam­i­na­tion of how small, per­sis­tent actions can push oth­ers away.

The Lim­its of the World is well-researched. It explores the racial pol­i­tics and the his­to­ry of British Colo­nial­ism in Kenya through voice mem­os that Sunil’s grand­fa­ther record­ed before he became ill. In tem­pered, evoca­tive prose, he tells the sto­ry of his family’s migra­tion from India to Kenya, the work they had to do to sur­vive, and the ways in which the British fash­ioned the racial hier­ar­chy that Sunil’s grand­fa­ther describes. These pas­sages appear between the present-day action, smooth­ly weav­ing in his­tor­i­cal con­text that informs and enrich­es what hap­pens in the present.

Although its char­ac­ters some­times are cru­el to one anoth­er, The Lim­its of the World is a deeply com­pas­sion­ate sto­ry that explores moral­is­tic objec­tiv­i­ty and the after­ef­fects of both colo­nial­ism and Amer­i­can­iza­tion on the individual.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Jen­nifer Acker

  1. The com­mu­ni­ty of mer­chant-class Indi­ans por­trayed in this nov­el have been called the Jews of Africa.” What do you think that means? How is their expe­ri­ence sim­i­lar to those of Jews in diaspora?

  2. The his­to­ry of Indi­ans in East Africa is recount­ed in this book, in part, by the grand­fa­ther through a series of tran­scribed audio record­ings in which he is talk­ing to his two grand­sons, Sunil and Bimal. What do you think the grand­fa­ther is try­ing to con­vey to his grand­chil­dren? Why is this act of record­ing his­to­ry impor­tant to him?

  3. There are four points of view in this book. Whose point of view did you enjoy being in the most, and why? Not nec­es­sar­i­ly in terms of lik­ing or not lik­ing the char­ac­ter, but in becom­ing deeply acquaint­ed with them in a plea­sur­ably inti­mate way.

  4. When Amy meets Sunil, her par­ents have under­gone a con­ver­sion to Ortho­dox Judaism that Amy finds con­fus­ing and dis­turb­ing. How does this event and Amy’s reac­tion to it shape her and Sunil’s relationship?

  5. How would you describe the friend­ship that devel­ops between Urmi­la and Mad­dy? Why is each impor­tant to the oth­er? What uni­ver­sal aspects of women’s expe­ri­ences stand out to you in this book?

  6. What is the most changed aspect of Amy and Sunil’s joint life when they return from Kenya?

  7. What is your expe­ri­ence of and take away from Urmi­la and Sunil’s final scene in DC toward the end of the book?

  8. The book opens with Urmi­la rear­rang­ing the wood­en ani­mals in her shop and ends with her watch­ing ani­mals dur­ing a safari. What is the impor­tance of ani­mals in this book?