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Review: Atlas of Unknowns, Tania James

When she was a little girl in India, Linno lost her right hand in an accident with fireworks.  Ever since, she has been ashamed, dropping out of school and becoming the caretaker for her grandmother.  The only thing that she treasures is her art, as she trains her left hand to create the beautiful pictures which were so effortless with her right.  Her little sister Anju is incredibly intelligent.  When Anju applies for a scholarship to study for a year in New York City, this is perceived as the opportunity to get her family out of India and to the US.  Anju must succeed.  When confronted with evidence of her own awkwardness and lack of originality during her interview, Anju decides to claim Linno’s pictures as her own and wins the scholarship on the basis of her sister’s talent.  In New York City, Anju is haunted by her lies and by a friend of the mother who killed herself so many years ago.  When she can no longer hide, Anju must confront the difficulties she’s created for herself and find out what really matters to her.

I really loved this book.  My favorite part was how well the characters were drawn.  Linno in particular was my favorite.  She grows amazingly over the course of the novel, from the injured, mocked little girl into an amazing young woman fully capable of using her talents and getting what she’s dreamed.  She confronts the evils of her own past and makes her own choices rather than getting married to another semi-disabled person and hiding in borrowed wealth.

Anju, while less appealing because of her pathological lies, is also a completely believable character.  She’s forced to confront some hard truths in this book about who she is and what she is doing; she falls from the top of the world into its nasty underworld and honestly, it feels like she really learns that things aren’t going to be given to her and that grades aren’t all that matter in the world.  People throughout the novel are set to use Anju for their own personal gain, to take her story and make it their own; by the end of the novel Anju has decided to take control of her story for herself.    The other, less central characters are also fascinating, like Melvin and Bird and Gracie, Linno and Anju’s deceased mother.

The multi-culturalism in this novel was similarly interesting to me.  I think one of the scenes that captures this best is when Linno has to make an invitation for a woman who does not want an authentic Asian design but rather one that reflects what she has seen on TV and in films.  Linno has to struggle with her own knowledge of cultures and the way that they are perceived by outsiders, which I found to be a very interesting contrast.  Anju experiences similar problems through her relationship with her host mother, a famous TV personality who while intent on enlightening people about Indian problems, has a worldview which doesn’t match up at all with the India that Anju was born and lived in.  This always makes me wonder how different actual cultures are from the packaged versions presented on TV, in movies, and to tourists on visits.  I’m not sure how accurate a picture books can give me, but I would hope that they push the boundaries a bit.

All in all, this is a great book.  There are many layers to it but overall, it’s an engaging story.  I grew to care about the characters and wished for them to succeed.  I was sorry to let them go at the end of the novel, but I’ve been left with quite a bit to think about.  This is readable literary fiction at its best.  I completely recommend it.

Atlas of Unknowns is available from Amazon UK and Amazon.

Interesting aside: Did you know that Indian trains have open toilets and while traveling, the waste just falls onto the ground and whoever is unlucky enough to be standing underneath? I did not, but it’s in this book and I heard it on TV in the same week, so I went and looked it up. It’s true for some trains at least.

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