Book Quote:

“She. Anju. This …” He shakes his head forcefully, deeply irritated. “This is for the best.”

“The word ‘this” he pronounces with eyes closed, whether from reverence or need of sleep, she cannot tell. Linno knows, has always known, the definition of ’this.’ She wants an admission from Ammachi or Melvin, both of whom have gone about the house maintaining the careful pretense that Anju’s newfound artistry is perfectly natural.”

Book Review:

Review by Katherine Petersen (SEP 29, 2009)

At its heart, Atlas of Unknowns is a story about family, especially the relationship between two sisters. Linno and her younger sister, Anju, grew up with their father and grandmother in Kerala, India. Their mother’s apparent suicide is alluded to but not discussed although her death haunts both girls in different ways. At age 13, Linno, a budding artist, loses her hand in an accident with a firecracker. She sinks into despair and leaves school after falling too far behind her classmates, resigned to living as her father’s servant or in a loveless marriage. She trains herself to write and draw with her left hand, but she has few career options as a woman, let alone a handicapped one.

Anju, the brains of the family, applies for a scholarship to spend 10 months in America attending the Sitwell School in New York. She stumbles through her personal interview, realizing she has little unique to offer until she claims Linno’s artistic talent as her own. She wins the scholarship, but at the price of her relationship with her sister as Linno won’t speak to her at all. As she leaves for America, she pictures Linno as an embittered old woman, still holding a grudge.

Neither girl’s life stands still while Anju is in America. She attends school but takes measures to avoid exposing her lack of talent until the school discovers her secret and she runs away from her host family’s home. She heads to Jackson Heights and moves in with Bird, an older Indian woman who befriended her soon after she arrived in America. Unbeknownst to Anju, Bird also had an ambiguous friendship with her mother, Gracie. Anju has plans to obtain a green card and bring her family to the United States, but she doesn’t communicate with them at all during her time in Brooklyn. She hopes that in the proecess she’ll get to know herself  better and take control of her life rather than being the pawn of those around her.

Linno, too, has had a turn of luck when a friend recognizes her talent and hires her to design invitations for her business. Linno creates customized cards that incorporate intricate folding designs. She hopes the business, too, will enable her to obtain a Visa to go to the United States to search for her missing sister. Betrayal and an ocean may separate them, but they remain sisters, and more often than not, love outweighs anger and bitterness.

Tania James’s debut novel, Atlas of Unknowns, gets off to a slow start. Lengthy descriptions of India’s landscape permeate the first few chapters, weighing down an already-languid pace. Then, the plot noses its way through, giving the reader a story to follow. Atlas of Unknowns has multiple layers and touches on a number of issues: including immigration, the importance of fitting in and female empowerment and freedom. James introduces the reader to a number of characters outside Anju and Linno’s family, all of whom have their own personalities and quirks. Sonya Solanki, Anju’s host mother, is a host on a TV show, who is always on the hunt for an “important” story because she doesn’t think her producer takes her seriously. Rohit, her son, doesn’t go anywhere without his video camera. He searches for the perfect documentary and finds it in Anju as she travels the twists and turns in the U.S. Immigration process. Most interesting though is that while the reader knows the thoughts of all the characters including Anju and Linno, they don’t communicate with each other. For example, the family doesn’t discuss Gracie’s death, they avoid the topic of Anju’s calling herself an artist and Linno doesn’t give a reason for her unwillingness to go through with a proposed marriage. James has an ear for dialogue and pacing in her tale once it gets moving. Alternating viewpoints keep the reader’s attention as they hurry through one chapter to find out what happens next in another storyline.

Linno’s character appealed to me the most because she grew the most during the novel even though she had more obstacles to overcome. From a desperately distraught one-handed little girl, she grew into a successful, forgiving and thoughtful young woman. Anju also changed throughout the story, as she starts to take responsibility for herself and recognizes that excellent grades don’t necessarily amount to success.

James also brings home the point that while some people covet citizenship in the United States, some can find contentment right where they already live. Gracie dreamed of moving to the United States while her husband, Melvin, wanted nothing more than to care for his mother and his children. The novel leaves some loose ends, but perhaps that was on purpose. Overall, it’s a poignant and thought-provoking story.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 20 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (April 21, 2009)
REVIEWER: Katherine Petersen
EXTRAS: Excerpt


September 29, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Family Matters, India-Pakistan, New York City

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