Atlas of Unkowns by Tania James
Atlas of Unknowns was actually nothing like I thought it would be. And that's a good thing. Set in Kerala, India, this beautiful written and incredibly involved story introduces us to two sisters Linno and Anju, and their unknown past and future. When Linno was 7, and Anju just a baby, their mother Gracie died in the ocean. Being raised by their father Melvin, they faced another tragedy when Linno burns her hand badly with a firecracker. Trying to surpass their sad history, Anju, the brilliant one, applies for a scholarship that will take her to New York City, where she will study for 10 months. Lucky for her, she receives the scholarship, yet only by staging a lie - one that reveals itself a few months into her stay in the city.
The story continues to revolve around the girls and how they will one day be reunited again. As Anju tries to get a green card and works in a beauty salon, Linno earns money to get her Visa by creating handmade invitations. Juxtaposed by the story of their mother's past, everything comes together at the end when two separate tales are joined.
I really enjoyed Atlas of Unkowns. The book was incredibly engrossing - jumping from story to story, it was a nonstop page turner. As James's first novel, she weaves a beautiful, yet heartbreaking tale of two sisters and how much they'll risk to set things right. James' descriptions of rural India are so vivid that you could see the multi-colored saris and taste the spicy foods. What she portrays most interestingly, however, is Anju's time in the city. An outsider trying to fit in, Anju learns how to push her way into the subway, talk to people in department stores and make friends with classmates. I also loved the descriptions of Linno's innvitations. Seeing her create an object out of nothing was especially inspiring.
The story is deep, with many layers detailed different generations of the family. Each substory is important, each relates back to the present. Each section is told by a different main character, which is especially important. With that, you learn each side of a story, every part of a never forgotten tale. Additionally, every character is given an incredible amount of detail-enough that you feel as if you know them. Of those Bird is the most important, with her motherly protective ways towards Anju.
My main problem with the book is that it doesn't wrap up in the end. Yes, things are resolved, however so much more is left out. Characters are dropped and plot lines are avoided. Although none of them are as essential as the main story, I would have liked to see what happened afterward. I suppose this book isn't a story though - it's about a life. A life can't be wrapped up after 300 pages; it keeps going.
Regardless, Atlas of Unknowns truly is a beautiful book that I recommend to anyone who has an interest in Indian lifestyles, cultural studies or coming of age tales. I look forward to whatever else Tania James writes.