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A Review of Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns (Knopf, 2009).

 A Review of Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns (Knopf, 2009).


I should have probably included this novel in my review of Asian/American sisterhoods as Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns is a poignant tale of two sisters.  In this case, there is the more academically gifted sister, Anju Vallara, and her sister, Linno, the more artistically gifted sister (she eventually comes to be renowned in the community for her painting and design skills), also the one who has had a hand amputated at a young age due to a freak accident with firecrackers.  The novel is first set in provincial town in Kerala, India.  The family comes from a working class background as Anju and Linno’s father, Melvin, works as a driver for a family friend, Abraham Saar; their mother, Gracie, died in a drowning incident in their childhood.  The extended family is completed by Ammachi, a spirited grandmother figure who continually reappears in the narrative at various points.  We begin immediately to see the strain that appears between Anju and Linno as Anju excels in school and Linno becomes increasingly anti-social as a result of her physical difference.  When Anju is selected to be one of the ten finalists for a very prestigious scholarship, the plot begins its upward movement.  Indeed, as a finalist, Anju must be interviewed first and during that moment she freezes up to the extent that it is only when she lies about her artistic talents that she fully recovers.  Yes, the readers discover that Anju has passed off a book of Linno’s artwork as her own.  Despite the fact that Melvin knows about Anju’s deception, he chalks it up to the opportunity the scholarship would not only offer Anju, but the entire family.  In this way, the novel explores the challenges of class transformation as Anju is allotted a year of abroad schooling in New York City, where she is set up with a wealthy host family, the Solankis and attends a prestigious school.  Once there, Anju embarks upon a high school romance with a fellow student, but finds it challenging to adjust to the new cultural, national, and urban milieu.  Back in Kerala, Linno does not accede to her father’s hope that she marry Kuku, a man who although legally blind, might be the best offer of marriage for Linno given her physical condition and the fact that Kuku is quite wealthy.  Instead, Linno ends up working for Kuku’s sister, Alice, using her artistic talents to help transform and uplift the design company that Alice has begun.  In this way, while Anju’s life begins to disintegrate in the United States, we begin to see Linno come into her own as a designer and as a person.  The relationship between Anju and Linno is perhaps the biggest plot element of James’s spritely first novel, but an important side plot involving Melvin and Gracie does begin to evolve as Anju comes to know Bird, a former actress who knew Gracie when Gracie was just a young woman and just prior to Gracie’s marriage to Melvin.  The readers do not understand Bird’s importance to the story and with a deft had, James weaves in this other plot, where we begin to see that Melvin and Gracie’s marriage had its own challenges to overcome. 


James’s novel is quite adept at exploring both the problematics of cultural assimilation for the immigrant in the United States and the difficulties of class transformation in India.  In some ways, the novel is the perfect embodiment of transnational Asian American literature as the narrative literally becomes bifurcated in its middle section, where we are continually moving from one country to another.  James never loses her footing and although the plot does not necessarily move quickly, the characterizations are spot on and we can’t help but wonder how it is that Anju’s more pressing predicament will be solved.  I especially found the representation of the Americanized family of South Asian descent that hosts Anju extremely funny and very nuanced in the differences that can appear between a family that has more readily assimilated to US culture and the individual that has not.  The desi son, Rohit, of the Solankis is perhaps one of the most telling characters of the novel and explores the increasingly problematic nature of political progressivism as Asian Americans find themselves in privileged settings. 


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Tags: asian american novel, book review

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