Atlas of Unknowns

( 13 )

Overview

An utterly irresistible first novel: The story of two sisters, the yearning to disappear into another country, and the powerful desire to return to the known world. Linno is a gifted artist, despite a childhood accident that has left her badly maimed, and Anju is one of Kerala’s most promising students. Both girls dream of coming to the United States, but it is Anju who wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in New York. She seizes it, even though it means lying and betraying her sister. When her lie is ...
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Overview

An utterly irresistible first novel: The story of two sisters, the yearning to disappear into another country, and the powerful desire to return to the known world. Linno is a gifted artist, despite a childhood accident that has left her badly maimed, and Anju is one of Kerala’s most promising students. Both girls dream of coming to the United States, but it is Anju who wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in New York. She seizes it, even though it means lying and betraying her sister. When her lie is discovered, Anju disappears. Back in Kerala, Linno is undergoing a transformation of her own. But when she learns of Anju’s disappearance, Linno strikes out farther still, with a scheme to procure a visa so that she can come to America to look for her sister and save them both.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
December 1995. Kerala, India. The Vallera family is preparing to celebrate Christmas Eve. Melvin Vallera's two young daughters, Anju and Linno, are about to be caught up in an event that will change both their lives, but has yet to take place. For a little while, things are exactly as they should be.

Such is the world evoked by Atlas of Unknowns, a shimmering debut novel about two sisters -- one in India, the other in America. A novel of sisterhood and family, it is also about the dream of America, a mythic place filled with tantalizing promise that Anju and Linno can only imagine. When the chance arises for one to attend school in New York, the fantasy begins to look more and more like reality. While Linno struggles to share her sister's happiness, Anju pictures the path of migration as an orbit, circling from India to the United States and back again, continuing until she's reached certain goals: an improved home for her family and a dowry for Linno. Busy with her dreams and comforted by their good intentions, she is able to forget -- for a moment -- that betrayal is the reason for her unexpected fortune.

Combining the themes so artfully developed in Atonement and Brick Lane, James employs vibrant storytelling, memorable characters, and an engrossing plot to showcase her singular new voice in fiction. (Summer 2009 Selection)
From the Publisher
“Dazzling and deeply absorbing. . . . One of the most exciting debut novels since Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“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

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow
James's delightful first novel explores the hazards and rewards of wanting more than life willingly allots…The author, a young Indian-American, writes with poise, sly humor and an acuity both cultural and sensuous
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

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.
Library Journal

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.]
—Joy Humphrey

Kirkus Reviews
A student's odyssey from India to the United States and eventually back to India, a journey that raises personal and cultural questions about family, immigration and doing the right thing. Sisters Linno and Anju Vallara have been living a quiet life in Kerala with their father Melvin and their grandmother. Despite an accident that deforms her hand, Linno is an accomplished artist, and Anju is an academician. While visiting India, Miss Schimpf, from the Sitwell School in Manhattan, interviews 17-year-old Anju for a prestigious, all-expense-paid scholarship to the school, but the interview goes badly-that is, until Anju dazzles Miss Schimpf with some of her artwork. This seals the deal, and Miss Schimpf hails Anju as "a true Renaissance woman: an excellent student, a leader, and a brilliant artist." Trouble is that it's not Anju's artwork: Anju stole Linno's oeuvre in desperation to get the scholarship. At Sitwell Anju becomes something of a loner, but eventually she's befriended by Sheldon Fischer (aka "Fish") and holds out hope that he might even become a Real American Boyfriend. Instead, he betrays her secret to Miss Schimpf, and she is suspended from school. This ignominy leads Anju to run away and get a job at a beauty salon, hiding her status as she seeks legalization through a shifty immigration attorney. Meanwhile, back in India, the family also suffers, both from shame and worry. Even as Linno makes arrangements to come to the United States to find and recover her sister, Anju makes a parallel decision to reject American life and return home, seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. A touching debut novel with a range of tones, from the sweet to the sordid. First printing of 35,000.Author tour to Boston, Louisville, Ky., New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307389015
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/20/2010
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,010,492
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Tania James was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia universities. She has published her work in One Story and The New York Times. She lives in New York City.
 
www.taniajames.com
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Read an Excerpt

1.

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 from 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 white 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 bet- ter 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 bend low, falling in love with their likenesses, 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 the bus 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 They shove wads of chapati into their mouths, fixated on the bag. They argue over who should hold it 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 that belongs, 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 only fit 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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What is the significance, both literal and metaphorical, of the novel's title?

2. What does America symbolize to Anju and her family? In what ways is the influence of the West felt in their small village?

3. In an attempt both to condone and to apologize for Anju's betrayal, Melvin says, “There is good and there is bad, Linno. And then there is bad for good's sake” (page 32). Is Melvin right about this? How does Anju justify her betrayal? How can Linno's inability to confront Anju be explained?

4. How does the Vallara family's Christian heritage influence the way Ammachi, Melvin, Linno, and Anju make sense of their experiences?

5. The narrator only gradually reveals aspects of Gracie's personality and the circumstances surrounding her death. How does this serve to build dramatic tension throughout the novel? How does Gracie's death affect the main characters?

6. As Bird is planning to approach Anju for the first time, she thinks, “Time is but a circle, and a person might run from the past only to find herself faced with it in the end” (page 66). How does the past influence Bird's present life? In what ways do other characters try to flee from their pasts? Do they succeed, or are they also forced to face the past in some way?

7. What is pleasurable for Anju about life in America? What is disappointing? What cultural differences are most jarring? What is pleasurable for Anju about life in America? What is disappointing? What cultural differences are most jarring?

8. How do wealth and fame figure into the narrative? Consider the characters of Mrs. Solanki, Kuku, and Abraham Chandy: What advantages do they possess? What kinds of limitations do they experience, either because of or in spite of their positions?

9. How does Linno view her talent as an artist? What role does the creative process play in her life?

10. Anju observes of the Solankis: “There is no discussion that this family will not touch, no question unposed, no secret kept. Yet for all their honesty, all these freedoms of speech, neither Rohit nor his parents seem to know what to make of one another. . . . Whether this is better or worse than her own family, Anju cannot tell” (page 111). Is the honesty among the Solankis better or worse than the secrecy maintained in Anju's family?

11. How do women's desires conflict with the roles they are expected to play in the novel? How does this conflict change over the course of generations, in the lives of Ammachi and her sister; Gracie, Bird, and Mrs. Solanki; Alice, Linno, and Anju?

12. When the sisters are finally reunited, Anju chooses to face Linno away from the cameras. How does this decision reflect a change in Anju's values? What does Linno's response say about her own internal transformation? What does this ending reveal about their relationship?

13. What role do prophecy, guilt, confession, and redemption play in the novel?

14. How does the novel illuminate the contentious issues surrounding immigration in a post-9/11 world? What does it say about the cultural differences between contemporary India and America?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 14 of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Awesome Debut Novel!

    In Atlas of Unknowns, first time novelist Tania James, tells the funny and honest story of two sisters trying to find their places in this world amidst betrayal and haunting secrets. The older sister, Linno, is scarred by an unfortunate accident and the truth behind her mother's death. She's a gifted artist, yet does not shine the way her younger sister, Anju, does academically. Anju is so successful in school that she applies for and receives a scholarship to attend an elite private school in New York. Though she wins the scholarship under false pretenses, she thinks this will be her opportunity to improve her family's situation. There's also a good supporting cast of characters. These include Anju's Hindu host family, the Sankalis, whose matriarch is a cohost on an American talk show that seems to be a caricature of a real life four woman hosted show and a son who defers college to pursue documentary film making. Then there's Bird, who brings Anju some semblance of comfort in the midst of culture shock and has a secret tie to her. Set in Kerala, India and New York, we see two sisters navigate issues like marriage, family, post 9/11 immigration, and self-discovery.



    "For such a small world, the space from person to person can span a whole sea."
    This describes the relationship between Anju and Linno both emotionally and physically. However, the emotional divide lessens once the spatial divide becomes a factor.

    I absolutely loved this book! At first, I thought this was going to be a story about one fortunate, scheming sister and the other talented and woeful. But, this isn't the case. Even though Linno lacks self-confidence early in the story, when Anju stabs her in the back, Linno calls her out. And like you would hope sisters would do, Linno still supports Anju's temporary success and she desperately tries to get to her when everything falls apart. I cheered Linno on through her self discovery and all but spewed venom at Anju, even after she loses everything. I did, however, sympathize with their father Melvin once he finds himself working for the wealthy man who was once betrothed to his deceased wife. James has a keen sense of narrative. Her characters are well developed, relative, and recognizable. She handles the issues of immigration in a post 9/11 America and a young Indian woman challenging marital customs with honesty. I felt very satisfied once finished with this. A small part of me didn't want it to end, and that's when you know you've read something really special.

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  • Posted July 11, 2009

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    Atlas of Unknowns is a surprisingly apt title

    I decided to read this after hearing the Scott Simon NPR interview with Tania James -- her voice came alive and as soon as the show was over, I went online to find the book. I'm glad I read it and I'll recommend it to others but the characters never did come as alive or appear to be as marvelously eccentric as James sounded. I would have liked more about the older sister, who seems to disappear in the middle and is never as fully known as Anju, and she was a bit of a mystery as well. In fact, the "confession" which comes near the end is a complete surprise which doesn't really shed light on much else and is too late to make up for what we missed when Linno was off-stage. Another "unknown" in this atlas is the geography -- I found myself convinced that the US part of the story was taking place in the midwest and then always being pulled up short when I would read something about the subway or Queens. I've never been to India so I don't know if that part rings true or not, but the sense of place was never as strong as the characters and they weren't always strong enough either. Yet I never thought of not finishing it (and I won't finish something I don't like!).

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  • Posted July 6, 2009

    Great reading

    Book is well written, interesting, fast moving. Gives you a view of a background country as well as the United States. Also and very important shows that what you are meant to be you will be in spite of yourself!

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  • Posted May 3, 2009

    A Stunning Accomplishment of a Young, New Novelist!

    Tania James has produced a masterful debut novel. With meticulous literary dexterity, the story straddles south Indian and American characters and deals with the pangs of immigration to a new country, the emotions of betrayal and guilt by one sister who ends up in America while her family is left behind. The main characters are the two sisters, Anju and Linno from Kerala who are raised in a family of modest means by the widowed father, Melvin and the perceptive elder of the family- Ammachi, the sister's paternal grandmother. With certain connivance and puposeful betrayal by Anju who misrepresents Linno's creative work of drawings as her own and is able to secure a scholarship to study in New York. Her host family have achieved the pinnacle of their American dream and live in a mansion with all the accouterments of the fabulously wealthy. Their son, Rohit is a college dropout who wishes to be a successful documentarian and film-maker and is perpetually searching for an opportunity. Anju does extremely well academically at school but things turn topsy-turvy when it is discovered that Anju has arrived in America on false pretenses and cannot produce drawings of her own and that Linno who is a one hand amputee due to a freak fireworks accident is the original artist. Anju has no choice but flee from school and the host family and loses contact with her own family out of embarrassment. The news of Anju's disappearance is devastating to her family. Meanwhile, Linno has procured a fantastic job creating Hallmark-style cards and invitations for a local company that has cultivated customers even in America. Linno tries to obtain a visa fom the US consulate in Chennai in the hope of finding her sister in America. Anju has been staying at Bird's place who has helped her secure a job in a beauty salon as a bikini waxer in Jackson Heights, a place populated by the immigrants from India. Rohit traces her whereabouts and in earnest, embarks on his project for a documentary about the process of eventually getting green card and then citizenship for Anju. Tania James introduces many interesting and complex characters along the way. With beautiful and evocative prose, she is a superb story-teller. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and will anxiously wait for her collection of stories set in Louisville, Ky where she was raised.

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  • Posted May 1, 2009

    A touching tale

    It's a lush painting, painstakingly created with tiny brush strokes, which brings out the delicious details of this quaint locale in Southern India. Because the characters, big and small, are handled with such genuine compassion, they leap out of the pages with three dimensional clarity. The subdued humor and the seamless blending of mystery kept me racing through the chapters. The maturity in the authors young voice is stunning; it reminded me of Tagore's Babus of Nayyanjore and Daphne De Muir's My Cousin Rachel.
    Tania beautifully paints the ecstacy and pathos associated with migration and the emotions evoked transcend all borders. Capturing and encapsulating a period and a people, then eloquently garnishing it into a delectable dish that's appealing to diverse cultural palates is quite a feat. Tania has done a great job at this.
    Jayant Kamicheril

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  • Posted March 4, 2009

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    This is an interesting family drama

    In Kerala, India, their father Melvin with help form his mother raises his two daughters Anju and Linno Vallara when his wife and their mother committed suicide. Crippled Linno turns to painting and proves to be a talented artist. However, Anju steals the work as hers and obtains an art scholarship in New York while the real painter remains behind expecting to be a servant to her father for life.

    However, Anju's deception collapses when she shows not one iota of talent. Disgraced, she flees with her only friend being Bird, who is connected in an enigmatic way to her late mom. While Anju hides from her family, Linno becomes an artist of renown. She has forgiven her sibling and wants her to come home.

    This is an interesting family drama that vividly compares life in India with immigrants in New York. The sisters are fascinating as opposites in personalities yet in spite of deception and betrayal; there remains a flicker of sibling loyalty. Tania James provides a deep look at two sisters whose conflicting dreams has divided and united them in the past, but where will it take them if Linno pulls off the reunion has the sibs and readers wondering.

    Harriet Klausner

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