The New York Times
Atlas of Unknownsby Tania James
"In the wake of their mother's mysterious death, Linno and Anju are raised in Kerala by their father, Melvin, a reluctant Christian prone to bouts of dyspepsia, and their grandmother, the superstitious and strong-willed Ammachi. When Anju wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in America, she seizes the opportunity, even though it means betraying her sister. In… See more details below
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"In the wake of their mother's mysterious death, Linno and Anju are raised in Kerala by their father, Melvin, a reluctant Christian prone to bouts of dyspepsia, and their grandmother, the superstitious and strong-willed Ammachi. When Anju wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in America, she seizes the opportunity, even though it means betraying her sister. In New York, Anju is plunged into the elite world of her Hindu American host family, led by a well-known television personality and her fiendishly ambitious son, a Princeton dropout determined to make a documentary about Anju's life. But when Anju finds herself ensnared by her own lies, she runs away and lands a job as a bikini waxer in a Queens beauty salon." "Meanwhile, back in Kerala, Linno is undergoing a transformation of her own, rejecting the wealthy blind suitor with whom her father had sought to arrange her marriage and using her artistic gifts as a springboard to entrepreneurial success. When Anju goes missing, Linno strikes out farther still, with a scheme to procure a visa so that she can travel to America to search for her vanished sister." The convergence of their journeys - toward each other, toward America, toward a new understanding of self and country, and toward a heartbreaking mystery long buried in their shared past - brings to life a predicament that is at once modern and timeless: the hunger for independence and the longing for home; the need to preserve the past and the yearning to break away from it.
The New York Times
In this perfectly adequate tale of bicontinental love, betrayal and secrets, sisters Anju and Linno Vallara live in Kerala, India, raised by their father after their mother's apparent suicide. Crippled Linno establishes herself as a talented artist, a skill Anju ruthlessly claims as her own, passing off Linno's paintings as hers to win a scholarship to study art in New York. When Anju's dishonesty is eventually exposed, her future crumbles and she runs away, surviving only due to her friendship with Bird, a stranger who carries a key to their mother's mysterious past. Meanwhile, Linno, who once resigned herself to being her family's servant, has built a career and, despite her sister's betrayal, resolves to find Anju and bring her home. As that reunion looms, layers of lies and secrets are exposed until the reader, if not the sisters, glimpses the tangle of honesty and loyalties underpinning the story. James paints Kerala and immigrant New York with identical depth and ease, and the story is a readable balance of well-crafted plot and artful emotion. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In Kerala, India, sisters Linno and Anju are raised by their father and grandmother, their mother having suspiciously drowned when they were young. Bad luck seems to follow the family when Linno loses her right hand in a firecracker accident; however, she overcomes her disability by learning to draw, gaining fame by painting pictures on the windows of local businesses. The younger Anju excels in academics and applies for a scholarship at a prestigious high school in New York. During her all-important interview, Anju passes off Linno's artwork as her own, thereby winning the scholarship. She moves to New York to attend the school, but all unravels when Anju's deception is discovered and, in shame, she runs away. While Anju works at a hair salon in order to earn enough money to hire an immigration lawyer, Linno and her father tackle the bureaucratic red tape involved in obtaining a U.S. visa, intent on going to New York to find Anju. This debut paints amusing and disturbing pictures of both cultures, highlighting the struggles experienced by those who find themselves on foreign soil. Sensitively told and completely engrossing. [See Prepub Alert, LJ12/08.]
“Delightful. . . . James writes with poise, sly humor, and an acuity both cultural and sensuous. . . . The characters’ love for one other radiates off the page.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Wise and hilarious. . . . An astonishment of a debut, so radiant with life, with love, with good old human struggle that I had trouble detaching myself from its pages. . . . Tania James comes at you like everyone you’ve ever cared about, like everyone you’ve ever lost. . . . Her prevaricating bikini-waxing husband-dodging beautiful-crazy sisters followed me into my day, into my dreams. Take this book from someone, give it to someone—you will not go wrong. Atlas is that damned good.” —Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“A beguiling tale of treachery and remorse. . . . James is a perceptive writer whose insights into immigration, American life and Indian customs enrich this appealing tale.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Reminiscent of Pulitzer prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri, this delightful debut is an insightful study of leave-taking and homecoming.” —Daily Mail (London)
“James brings a dazzling array of writerly skills to her debut novel. . . . She has a tender heart that feels for [her characters’] idiosyncrasies and yearnings, a sharp ear for dialogue, and an eye for the details of landscape and setting.” —The Washington Times
“Tania James maps her characters’ yearnings and missteps with the skills of a seasoned cartographer. Dazzling, original, witty, and poignant, [this] is one of the most beguiling first novels I’ve read in years.” —Ann Packer, author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier
“Not your standard growing-up-in-India story. . . . James has concocted a charming seriocomic blend of individuals, cultures and expectations in which every component retains its individuality.” —The Star-Ledger (Newark)
“Touching and absorbing.” —New York Daily News
“Warm, beguiling, refreshingly smart. . . . A great strength of James’ novel is the depth and vibrancy of her characters. She treats them with dignity, never withdrawing the possibility of redemption, and even the most marginal figures turn out to be mysterious, surprising creatures.” —The New Leader
“With Atlas of Unknowns, Tania James proves herself a natural-born storyteller—she’s the real deal.” —Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
“Painted with exquisite imagery. . . . Lines read as if they are extracted from poems, creating a story that is not only entertaining but a true piece of art.” —The Missourian
“One of the most engaging literary reads of the year. . . . James has made a brilliant debut, one which will be remembered for a long time.” —Business World (India)
“As spectacular a debut as any author could hope for. . . . With keen insight and seminal prose James has fashioned a Bildungsroman of a family saga. . . . The breadth and depth of Atlas of Unknowns indicates that its author is as wise beyond her years as she is gifted.” —The Courier-Journal (Louisville)
“A powerful and nuanced debut. . . . Tania James paints the dual worlds of the novel—India and America—with masterful care, choosing beautiful, shocking details, and peopling them with characters we will remember long after closing the book.” —Chitra Divakaruni, author of Mistress of Spices
“A brilliant panorama of the human condition. . . . An unputdownable page-turner. So assured is the narration, so finished the skill, that you keep reminding yourself it is the work of a first time novelist. . . . James stands out for her unique voice and imaginative narration.” —India Abroad (New York)
“A refreshing new voice. . . . James subtly integrates the variances in colors, textures, odors, tastes and spaces that dance throughout the novel.” —Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)
“An intricate narrative that explores the nature of immigration and also the price paid by women struggling to find their place in the world. Share this book with your mother, your sister, your friend—they will thank you for it.” —Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief
“This bold novel will hold you captive. . . . [James’] paragraphs burst with sensory details, precise metaphors, poignant imagery, and delightful humor.” —Sacramento Book Review
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
I.ORIGIN Kumarakom, Kerala, India 1995 THE DAY BEGINS WRONG. Melvin feels it upon waking, as though he has slipped his right foot into his left shoe and must shuffle along with a wrong-footed feeling all day. That today is Christmas Eve brings no comfort at all. It is not the first morning to begin this way. Throughout his forty-five years, Melvin Vallara has periodically awakened to a nuisance in his stomach, an inner itch of ill portent that could bode anything from a bee sting to a gruesome bull-on-bus accident. Both events occurred on his seventh birthday, and he still has not forgotten that bull, how it bounced on its back before landing on its side. This is what the Bible says: I tell you the truth . . . no prophet is accepted in his hometown. Nor, Melvin would add, in his own family. His mother believes that the inner itch has more to do with gas than foresight, and like her mother before her, Ammachi calls upon an arsenal of unwritten remedies. She prepares a murky white goo from the boiled grounds of a medicinal root, while her granddaughter Linno watches from the doorway of the kitchen. "Which root?" Linno asks. "The name, I don't remember. A multipurpose root," Ammachi decides, borrowing an English phrase she heard in a Stain-Off! commercial, one in which a cartoon soap sud possessed eyes and a smile. Linno delivers the bowl of multipurpose root goo to her father, who is draped across his bed, an arm over his eyes. When he sees the bowl, he responds by turning away, onto his side. He is a man of few words, but clearly he and the goo have met before. Linno believes. She is thirteen and dutiful, convinced that part of her duty is to champion her father's prophecies, even though he lacks the frothy beard and brooding of biblical prophets and his name falls short of the weight and might of an Elijah or a Mohammed. In fact, he more closely resembles the icon of a gloomy-eyed saint: slight, balding, his forehead growing longer by the year. Linno tries to make up for the little attention he gets by bestowing as much as she can, so she supports his decision to stay home from morning Mass. She also hopes that Ammachi might let her support him from home. It is not to be. In the end, Linno leaves along with the rest of the family and returns from church to find Melvin still asleep, his hands in fists by his face, as if to pummel ill fortune away. BUT THEN, there is the Entertainment to consider. Melvin forgot to purchase the Entertainment from the Fancy Shoppe the day before, and now here they are-Linno and her younger sister, Anju-home from morning Mass with less than sixteen hours until midnight Mass, and no Entertainment? Unacceptable. Unfair. The Entertainment is tradition, a promise upon waking, a beautiful, blinding answer to the holy punishments of morning. Without the Entertainment, there is only the looming threat of carolers who travel from house to house, proud as roosters in their red mufflers, belting melodies and collecting church donations all through the night. Late afternoon breezes swell the sun-gilded trees that lift and sigh, sifting the light between their branches. There is still time left in the day to visit the Fancy Shoppe, if Melvin can be persuaded. Ammachi refuses to go back out once she has unpinned the Christmas brooch from her shoulder, a brass dove that she nests in its velvet-lined case, where it will remain until next Christmas Eve. She removes the embroidered shawl draped over her shoulder and goes about the house in the white chatta and mundu that all Syrian Christian women used to wear, so few now still starching their blouses and pleating their wraps despite the patterned profusion of saris surrounding them. Her brow still furrowed from the severity of her worship, she sits in a plastic chair, her eyes closed, her swollen, lotioned ankles perched on the daybed across from her as Linno reads aloud from the newspaper. Ammachi takes pleasure in knowing the happenings of district politics, lambasting corrupt politicians as if they are standing before her, a row of sulking children. But lately, large-scale developments have been attracting her rebuke, particularly new plans for the construction of a national highway, a network of roads and bridges, three to six lanes thick, that will send vehicles speeding from Kashmir to Bangalore, and west to east in a third of the usual time. "With double the waste," Ammachi warns. Examining the map, the dark passages splayed across the country, she rejects its unpronounceable given name-the Golden Quadrilateral-and coins it instead "the Golden Colon." During Ammachi's indictments, Linno sketches her grandmother along the margins of the newspaper, paying special attention to her bun, a silver-gray swirl that maintains its integrity without help from a single hairpin. These sketches interest Melvin more than the news itself, so much so that he neatly tears out and saves his favorites. Gracie, his wife, used to tease that he would turn anything, even a bottle cap, into a souvenir. He is sure that had Gracie lived to see these sketches, she would have saved them as well. They seem to belong to the hand of someone much older, who understands not only the anatomy of the face but the way muscles hold emotion, the way eyes possess life. He keeps the drawings in a faded cigarillo box that bears the face of a mustached white man on the lid. WHILE LINNO DRAWS Ammachi, Anju follows her father through the bedroom, the sitting room, and even hovers around the outhouse, reciting in English from the Book of Isaiah as he does his business. At nine years old, Anju is a valiant Bible Bowler, her brain an unbeatable vault of Scripture that she draws upon to give herself authority, even when faced with a sighing audience. Unlike Linno, Anju will not accept defeat; at least five times a day, she pulls on the tip of her nose, believing that her efforts will somehow win her a straighter one. With similar persistence, she follows her father into the sitting room, translating and interpreting the text as verses of fortitude and godly reliance, closing her case with the reminder that he never got her a birthday gift. When logic fails, Anju's argument devolves. She whimpers, tugging at the hem of her T-shirt ("Eddi, stop stretching it!" Ammachi warns), and threatens to run away, which is a predictable threat, as she is always running away and Linno is always sent to fetch her. The only mystery lies in which neighbor's house Anju might choose as her sanctuary. Usually Linno finds her sitting on someone's front step, bleakly toeing patterns in the dirt until she spots Linno in the yard. Anju always comes away quietly, gradually softening beneath the weight of her sister's hand on her shoulder. Sometimes, after a silence, Anju will ask, "What took you so long?" Melvin retires to the daybed with his arm over his eyes while Ammachi lectures, while Linno draws, while Anju continues to flit around him with her runaway threats, until at last he says, "Enough." Melvin sits up and rubs his eyes with his fists, muttering that it is better to disappoint God than to disappoint daughters. "At least God forgives." LINNO ACCOMPANIES HER FATHER to the Fancy Shoppe, riding sidesaddle on the back of his bicycle, her heels held away from the spokes. They cut through mingled smells of dung, earth, freshwater, pesticides. 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. Whenever a bus appears on the horizon, Melvin pulls over to the side and waits for it to groan past, spewing dust and diesel in its wake, before he plunges his foot down onto the pedal. Her view of the road is blocked by his shoulders, dark and tense all the way down to the unsettling clutch of his fingers around the handlebars. Linno wonders what kind of gut feeling struck Melvin on the day her mother died. Perhaps he had seen her funeral face in dreams, with skin so spackled over with paint that she seemed a porcelain replica of the person she had been. Here was her lineless forehead, every wrinkle erased like a past swept clean. Here was her tiny smile, as though amused by a secret. After the funeral, the albums were all packed away in trunks, but a single photo of Gracie remains within reach: the newlywed photograph, a black-and-white double portrait that every couple took in those days, tucked in a back pocket of Ammachi's Bible. Gracie appears vaguely pretty but in a sharp, plain way, considerably shorter than Melvin, and cheerless. Husband and wife stand next to each other, shoulders touching, gazing sternly up into the camera as if being summoned into battle. ... THE ENTERTAINMENT COMES in a paper bag, folded down and stapled shut. Linno and Anju spend the evening dutifully guarding the bag from interference, though no one wants to interfere more than they do. Fixated on the bag, they shove wads of chapati into their mouths. They argue over who should hold the bag and how. Anju tries to educate Linno about a rarely read passage in the Bible, which suggests that younger sisters should always get their way. Anju is a strange little sieve of general knowledge, continually dribbling answers to questions that no one has asked. This one Linno knows not to believe, just as she didn't believe it that last time with her Cadbury Fruit & Nut. After dinner, the girls have no choice but to wait on the front step, swatting at mosquitoes, the Entertainment placed equidistant between them. Theirs is a small brick and stucco house with a thatched ola roof, humbly crouched among the slanting coconut trees that are charming by day yet spindly, looming and long-armed by night. Two lanky tree trunks span the brook in front, making a shaky footpath that the girls race across, testing their balance and bravery, light as birds on a branch. AS THE NIGHT SOFTENS WITH FOG, the family collects on the front steps. Dragging a plastic chair behind her, Ammachi mutters that this is a show she has seen before, and what it has to do with Yesu's birth she does not know. For the first time in history, Melvin allows Linno to assist him, while Anju is told to sit on the steps. In mute protest, Anju takes a pose beyond her nine years, legs crossed, head tilted, fingers laced around her knee, like a woman in a magazine. From the paper bag, Melvin lifts a parcel whose label displays two words in red block letters: rainbow thunder. Out of the parcel, plastic crackling, Melvin pulls a bundle of sparklers. These Linno lights as reverently as if she were lighting candles at church. All else around her dissolves into shadow and there is only the single captive star, its spitfire warmth belonging, however briefly, to her alone. Even Ammachi accepts a sparkler and, equally transfixed, begins circling hers in figure eights, watching the wild spray of orange light, frowning a little when it dies to a glowing ember. And then, what fire! One aerial miracle follows the next. There is the Volcano-a small cone that splutters before erupting into a great geiser of liquid flame, rising, rising, borne on a splendid gushing noise. The Mouse, which Melvin lights from the throat of an empty toddy bottle, a faint sizzle before the white-pink bullet shoots into the trees and spirals over the branches. And finally, the Necklace, a length of tiny dynamite that Melvin ties to a low branch of the jackfruit tree. When he lights the fuse, everyone plugs their ears against the sound, a violent rifle crack, mercilessly loud as it pop-pop-pops all the way up to the branch. A silky smoke roams over the ground as Ammachi murmurs, grudgingly, that firecrackers are not so bad. "But if it were me, I would buy a nice set of mugs over these light tricks any day." In a rare embrace of Western custom, she cites the examples of other countries where the father gives Christmas gifts to the entire family. Even his mother. Melvin points out that his sister, Jilu, is American. "When was the last time she gave us anything?" "Hah, Jilu was American! Now she is in Canada. And what do you mean anything?" Ammachi rattles off a list of items: "Soap, socks, a fitted sheet, Tang . . ."
"Those socks were used. And that fitted sheet fit only half a bed." While Ammachi and Melvin argue over Jilu's largesse, Linno begins untying what is left of the Necklace from its branch. Several links remain on the blown fuse. Anju calls out, "Eh, Linno, we already lit that one." Linno is studying the remnants of the Necklace when she looks up at Anju, then at her father. She is pinned, suddenly, by the look of fear in a grown man's face. "Drop that --" Melvin says, or begins to say, she cannot tell. Because from this point, everything happens with a slow grace, in the space of seconds. Linno feels nothing and sees everything, in all its strange clarity. The links exploding in her palm, fire flowering and blazing above the watch that she wears facing in so she can check the time discreetly when she is at school. The face of the watch, splashed with light, now a flickering gold coin and above it, her hand held captive by a star, the shifting folds of flame and heat giving way to that time when her mother slit her finger while scaling a fish, how astonishing it was, the scarlet simplicity of what dripped from her, wet petals on the edge of the sink. And then Linno realizes that what she thought was the screaming of wind is a sound that only a girl can make, a girl on fire. 2. LINNO'S RIGHT HAND suffers third-degree burns, the rest of her unscathed. Bedridden in the hospital, she winces if so much as a breath rakes the back of her hand, the pain racing up her arm. As a nurse reaches over her, Linno studies the burns, the cooked skin, the pink tissues, wet and peeling. Her stomach lunges. Vomit down the ruffles of her Christmas dress. For days afterward, her hand is cocooned in gauze, the skin within laboring to forget its wounds. With pills, the pain lessens slightly but never leaves, a slow and steady throb that seems to possess its own resonance, a volume that drowns everything else in the hospital. Ammachi brings her Bible, from which she murmurs Psalms, squinting and dragging her finger across the pages. While Ammachi is caught up in these verses, rocking back and forth as she reads, Linno recalls another: If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off. Every time the doctor pulls away the gauze, he looks offended. The flesh has begun to rot. Infection is chewing at her hand and will climb its way farther through the body if left untreated. So two weeks after the accident, the doctor cuts off her hand, just above the wrist. Gradually, the scars heal, but she will let no one, not even Anju, see the aftermath. Linno rejects all short-sleeved clothing in favor of long sleeves; the right cuff she cuts and ties into a knot. This she does in private, before school, an animalistic maneuvering of left hand and front teeth. She has Ammachi plait her two braids each morning, though the result is clumsier than she would like. The only hair Ammachi can do properly is her own. These days, Linno rarely looks in mirrors if she can help it, for she knows what others see, not only a deformity of the hand but a deformity of fortune. Accidents belong to the unlucky, and ill fortune can travel along bloodlines, a gene that surfaces and sinks across generations but never disappears. LINNO WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD when her mother died; Anju was three. Until then they had lived in Bombay as a family, in a flat where the suburbs were hardly less hectic than the city's center. Their mother hung an orange sheet in the doorway between the kitchen and the bedroom, where they all slept together on bedrolls and a charpoy that the last tenant had left behind. The first thing Linno saw upon waking was a luminous red cloth tacked over the window, through which she could hear the magnified echo of the muezzin's call to prayer. Once, she woke in the middle of the night and saw her mother's profile, traced in dim light by the window. Her mother was perfectly still, a cord in her throat taut enough to touch; she seemed to strain for a view that the window could not afford her. Linno assumed it had something to do with the glossy postcard that had arrived that day, the one with the Statue of Liberty on it. "What is that?" Linno had asked, but her mother slipped it into her purse without an answer. Later, when Linno studied the postcard in secret, she was not especially impressed by the massive, mannish, sea green woman planted on the ocean. What held Linno's interest was the writing on the back of the postcard, in Malayalam: See? Their most famous statue wears a sari. You will have no problem here.
Bird Where was her mother going and when? Who was this Bird? Every question led to another, none that Linno could bring herself to ask aloud. She was wounded by the woman her mother might be, and choosing not to know further, she convinced herself of the necessity for silence; such is the way that questions in the family remain unasked and unanswered for years. In time, Linno learned how to tuck all her questions away, like the fancy saris that her mother never wore, tightly folded between leaves of muslin in the bottom of a drawer. AFTER LINNO'S OPERATION, Melvin calls several hospitals which give him the numbers of businesses that deal in prosthetic limbs; the nearest is a hundred miles away, in Thiruvananthapuram. The approximate price of the cheapest prosthetic, quoted to him over the phone, makes him want to laugh and cry at once. Not to mention that affixing such a prosthetic to his daughter's wrist would be as inviting to ridicule as renaming her Hook. Still, he writes down the figure in small, careful numbers and folds the paper into his pocket. Later that day, he loses himself in toddy and cigarettes until he grows sick, then hurries half a mile from home, tight-lipped and retching, to throw up in a place where his children will not see. For the sake of Linno's rehabilitation, Melvin fashions himself into a general of optimism. Everything, he announces, is mental. If Anju, tugging at her sweat-stained blouse, complains about the weather, Melvin replies, "All in your head. Think positive. Think cool." He once catches Ammachi weeping while praying in her room, asking God about fate and suffering and other not-positive topics. The next day, when Ammachi opens her prayer book, she finds a magazine clipping inserted between the Psalms. "Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life!" She uses it to line the floor of the chicken coop. For Linno, Melvin buys a new writing tablet whose cover displays a cartoon elephant in a tiny pink skirt. The pages are thin and gray, with faint blue lines. Using a ruler, he draws dashed lines across the page, like fences, and sample letters at the beginning of each fence. While her classmates are reducing fractions, Linno is struggling with the alphabet. Until lunch, she sits with her right wrist fixed to the top of the page, the book drastically slanted, her left hand gripping the pencil so hard that the lead breaks. Trying to muscle a steady grace into her left hand -- this is not unlike an elephant squirming itself into a skirt. For months, Melvin makes her begin each day with penciling while he watches and offers bouquets of positive wisdoms loosely translated from the English: "Every cloud has silver in it." Or: "If someone gives you lemons, make a glass half full of juice." The quotations were imported straight from America, via a faded self-help booklet written by Dr. Roy Fontainelle that Melvin found in a book stall. The booklet inspires nothing in Linno but irritation. She hates Dr. Roy Fontainelle, with his fishbowl glasses and salesman smile, for using her father as a puppet of positive talk. Hers is a misguided hatred, she will later understand, but it is hate that steers her around the wallow of self-pity. It is resentment that pushes her pencil up and down her father's fences while he sharpens her pencils with a kitchen knife. It takes months for her hand to fully relax around the pencil, but gradually her letters grow less wobbly. Full sentences begin to walk smoothly across the page with a measured calm, hardly a stutter. Apologies and gratitude would embarrass Melvin, who, likewise, is not given to dispensing praise. There comes a day when he simply stops glancing over her shoulder and speaking on behalf of Dr. Roy Fontainelle. This is also the day he opens her elephant notebook and tears her new signature from the corner of a page. That scrap seems to him like a picture of her, more truthful than any on film. ...
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