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
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."
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