Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Atlas of Unknowns

Atlas of Unknowns, by Tania James, is the story of two sisters linked by a tragic past.  When Linno was 7 and her sister Anju was 3, they lost their mother (Gracie) in a mysterious drowning accident.  The girls are then raised in Kerala, India by their eccentric father and religious grandmother.  Like the author, the family practices Christianity.

As in most families, the sisters are very different.  Anju yearns to go to the United States, believing whole-heartedly in the American dream. She wins a scholarship to a private school in Manhattan and seizes the opportunity to better herself.  Linno remains behind, using her artistic skills to earn money for her family.  She is highly independent and refuses to marry a man she does not love.

The story weaves back and forth through present and past, Kerala and Manhattan. In Manhattan, we meet 2 secondary characters, Bird and Mrs. Solanki, who represent opposite poles of the American success story.  Bird was once a beautiful and talented actress in India where she met the young Gracie, an aspiring actress. Bird was smitten by Gracie--a secret, simmering love that lasted well after her death. When Bird emigrated to New York, Gracie sought to escape her abusive father and married the kind and generous Melvin.  Anju and Linnu were the offspring of that marriage.

Neither Gracie nor Bird led gratifying lives.  Gracie longed for a career in the theater and fantasized the life she thinks Bird is living. In reality, Bird is just scraping together mere sustenance working in a Manhattan beauty salon.When we meet her, she is an elderly and faded beauty, still secretly pining for Gracie.  When she spots a notice in an Indian newspaper announcing Anju's scholarship along with her picture, memories of Gracie flood her memory.  She decides to help Gracie's daughter in this unfamiliar new land.

By contrast, Mrs. Solanki is host of a popular television talk show that sounds a bit like The View.  She is wealthy, successful and happily married.  It is she who sponsors the scholarship that Anju wins.  Having an Indian girl come live with her while continuing her education is Mrs. Solanki's way of expressing gratitude for her success.

The plot of the book revolves around Anju's act of deceit and her expulsion from the New York school.  Rather than come home, she runs away, ultimately living with Bird.  Meanwhile in India, the family is heartsick with worry.  Linno is especially distraught. When she and her new employer open an online card company, she is determined to save enough money to apply for a visa and come to Manhattan.  Against all odds, she hopes to find Anju.

Atlas of Unknowns (2009) is the first published work by Tania James.  Although the plot of the book is a bit convoluted, the characters are well-drawn.  If you are a fan of Indian literature, and if you enjoyed Ms. James new collection of short stories, Aerogrammes, this book is certainly worth reading.  Here, as in Aerogrammes, the author poignantly depicts the losses suffered when leaving one's homeland.  She also portrays family in all its quirkiness.  Above all, she takes a hard look at the complicated love of two sisters and the illusions inherent in "the American Dream."

Check Our Catalog

No comments:

Post a Comment

We review all comments and reserve the right to remove comments based on: profanity, irrelevance, spam, personal attacks and anything else contrary to our guidelines.