Book Review: Atlas of Unknowns, by Tania James

Book Review: Atlas of Unknowns, by Tania James

This is a debut book by Tania James, an Indian-American born and raised in Kentucky.

The book is set in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and follows the story of two sisters, Linno and Anju Vallara, and the cast of characters surrounding them. Linno has an childhood accident, and loses a hand – prompting her to become withdrawn in school, and ultimately dropping out. However, she is a brilliant artist, and eventually becomes an expert in creating invitations for rich clients abroad.

Anju, on the other hand, is very ambitious and determined – so much so that when she gets a chance to win a scholarship to New York City, she uses deception to win it. Her life in New York – first as a guest of the uber-rich socialite Sonia Solanki in Manhattan, and then as a refugee in Jackson Heights in Queens – is transformational, converting her from a shy, introverted student in a tony school, to a world-weary worker in an Indian salon, ordering McDonald’s in shorthand like a native.

On the periphery of their lives, we learn about their parents, Melvin and Gracie – their frustrations to being married in a loveless marriage, the introduction of Bird in their lives, and mysterious circumstances leading to Gracie’s apparent suicide.

The storyline is just a small part of what holds the reader’s attention, as it unfolds in two continents thousands of miles apart. The attention to detail, especially of small-town Kerala, and the simple description of the beauty, is riveting: “They bump along between paddy fields that, in stillness, reflect the sky’s blue with such clarity that grass seems to spring from liquid sky. At the water’s edge, a medley of palms bends low, each falling in love with its likeness, while webs of light spangle the dark undersides of the leaves…

James uses the technique of “flashback” or bringing in the past in snippets of memory in the middle of the story, which keeps the reader wanting more. The theme of love is the undercurrent in the novel – be it the bonds between the sisters, infatuation of Bird towards Gracie, or the lack of love between Melvin and Gracie. The second half of the book focuses on what the sisters do to re-connect – with their little victories, and crushing defeats – which keeps the reader cheering for the underdog.

If one could compare this debut novel to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winner debut “Interpreter of Maladies”, there would be similarities in the treatment of characters, getting the reader involved with the character intimately, and the low-key endings – but the biggest difference would the prose. James throws in pithy sentences so nonchalantly that one has to re-read the section to fully appreciate the meaning: “When the man turns, Linno glimpses his face, sallow and sedate, like a zoo animal tired of shrieking against the bars of his cage…”

The other interesting note is that each of the characters has unfulfilled dreams and desires – from the main cast to the rich Mrs. Solanki, to Ghafoor, the salon owner – but the reader is given an open license to peruse these in the dark alleys of their mind. A very appropriate sonnet from the book sums it up:

But it’s when I sleep that time goes still

With the moon as witness at the windowsill.

So whatever I have kissed in dreams

I’ll keep at least in part.

– Raj Bhandari, Jan 19, 2009

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