The daughter of a Bengali father and a German mother, Anita Desai was born in India but has made her home in Great Britain and in the United States. Thus she can write with authority about conflicts between cultures and about the presence of the past, as she did in novels like Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988), the story of an elderly German Jew in India, and Fasting, Feasting (2000), in which an Indian student tries to adapt to the lifestyle of a Boston family.
In The Zigzag Way, Eric, a Harvard graduate student, follows his scientist girlfriend to Mexico, only to learn that he would not be welcome at her research site. At a lecture on the Huichol Indians of the Sierras, given by the mysterious, exotic Doña Vera, Eric suddenly realizes that the place names she mentions are those he once heard from his Cornish grandfather, who once worked in the Mexican silver mines. Eric promptly travels into the Sierras, finds Doña Vera, and begins to ask questions about the mines and the miners.
However, in the second part of the novel, the author abandons Eric in order to explain how Doña Vera rose from prostitution to her present status as a wealthy grande dame. The third section of The Zigzag Way again plumbs the past, this time telling the story of Eric’s grandfather and the other Cornish immigrants, who ended up either dying, being killed, or having to leave Mexico.
The novel ends in the present, when at a local celebration called “La Noche de los Muertos,” Eric encounters a ghost from the past and sees his own path into the future. As in her earlier works, in The Zigzag Way Anita Desai has again demonstrated her mastery of her craft and her understanding of human nature.