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Atlas of Unknowns (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – April 20, 2010
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A poignant, funny, blazingly original debut novel about sisterhood, the tantalizing dream of America, and the secret histories and hilarious eccentricities of families everywhere.
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 drop out 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. Tania James combines the gifts of an old-fashioned storyteller—engrossing drama, flawless control of plot, beautifully drawn characters, surprises around every turn—with a voice that is fresh and funny and powerfully alive with the dilemmas of modern life. She brings grace, humor, deep feeling, and the command of a born novelist to this marvelous debut. About 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.
Exclusive Essay: Tania James on Sisterhood and Atlas of Unknowns
This book is primarily about sisters, a subject I know something about, as I have two, an older and a younger. For a lengthy stretch of childhood, the Older and I attended the Harold Roberts School of Dance, where we were packaged as a tap duet, and while other groups boasted sexy titles--The Jazzettes, for example, or Spice--my sister and I bore a name as dull and durable as our school shoes. We were simply, lamely, The James Sisters.
The James Sisters began their tenure at the ages of 7 and 9. I spent many of those youngest years as a pudgy counterpart to the Older (or, you could say, she was my lanky counterpart), and the visual effect, in pictures, evokes Abbott and Costello, or Cee-lo and Dangermouse, but in leotards and feathers. We were, however, serious about tap dance. Several times a week, we spun, flapped, and travel-backed across a linoleum patch of floor in our basement, smacking into walls, smiling blindly. Inevitably, the practice would end in a fight, and the Older would storm away and flop into a nearby armchair while I massaged my blisters and fantasized about a tapless adulthood.
I think that the Older resented being lumped with me, moreso than I did. But we were also aware that there existed some sort of mysterious syncretism to the styles in which we danced, and the way we could, without the aid of music, fall into exactly the same rhythms and gestures. At our best, when we performed, our four shoes emitted the sounds of a single pair, which seemed a genetic asset that our competitors lacked. Only once did we each try to dance a solo piece, but neither of us turned out to be the Paul Simon we had presumed ourselves to be. We were two Garfunkels, and practicing alone was boring. So we continued with our duets and fights, repelled and drawn back again and again, for years.
My apologies if I have given the impression that this novel has anything to do with tap dance. It does not. But in the attempt to sort through the soup of influences that fed this story, a particular image--my sister and I dancing and fighting in a cold basement--floated to the surface. Of course, I can point to other influences, both literary and non-literary, ones whose connection to my novel I can better articulate, like the statue of a martyred saint holding his own head, or a Malayalam film star, or my grandmothers who perpetually wear white, or a few seconds of the documentary Sherman’s March, wherein a woman complains to the filmmaker about his constant filming: “Could you turn it off? This is important. This is not art, this is life!” And then there are the influences that have exercised their hold on my imagination in invisible ways, like the fear of facing the infinite dark of the audience, and the relief of taking my sister’s sweaty hand for a bow. I can’t say that my life is art, but life has offered a steady and generous stream from which to make it.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
As a result, I wanted to love this book while in the end, I merely liked it. That puts me at odds with the literary community but that's the thing about reading: it's very individual.
A reprise of the plot: After their mother's mysterious death, two sisters -- Linno and Anju --are raised by their loving father. The two quickly set off on different tracks, largely as a result of Anju's betrayal. Disfigured Linno stays behind, using her artistic gifts to forge a career and a name for herself, rejecting marriage and compromises. Anju wins a scholarship to a very elite American school, which she enters based on a lie that is uncovered. She then takes up residence with a woman who shows more than a passing interest in her and who may hold the key to the past.
The novel is largely about the never-ending quest for identity: who are we? Where do we belong? How do we reconcile the yearning for home with the drive for adventure? What role does family play in our lives when we reinvent ourselves? All are worthy questions.
For me, much of the novel was told, not felt. There is a certain something -- perhaps the "soul" of the novel -- that just seems to be missing. Some of the plot twists (don't want to deliver spoilers) seem a little too pat, a little too well-plotted.Read more ›
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.
But the book is not just about sisters and secrets, it is about crossing cultures, and Anju observing those in America as someone new, and so noticing what others might not. Also there are hilarious scenes with her host family's son Rohit always using his camera and trying to get a documentary film. The book is also about the immigration and green card trap, about a conservative Keralite adjusting to doing bikini waxing in America.
The characters in the book are all very insightful about others and observant but less introspective about themselves which makes for interesting reading. Tania James also uses a close third Point of View and gets us close to different characters and weaves in the back story in a clever non linear fashion. And when you think you know how things are going she adds a new plot twist that pulls you out.
And yes finally the different strands are connected, as we watch the interactions of Anju with the mystery woman Bird, and her host family lady Mrs. Solanki who is on a show much like the View, as also the attempts of Linno to go to America to find her sister after Anju runs off once her lie about the art is revealed.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I loved this book, which I found very well written and emotionally complex and then came to the end which I found unsatisfiing. Read morePublished 10 months ago by Jane
So much hope is poured out for something unknown and unreachable, only to go back to the beginning to find everything.Published 15 months ago by L. Nolan
I bought these shoes just before leaving on a trip to Northern Ireland. I couldn't have been happier. Read morePublished on May 12, 2013 by Avid reader
"Atlas of Unknowns" had me engrossed from the very beginning. Tania James is and excellent writer. I highly recommend this book.Published on February 16, 2013 by Kariann
I loved this book; the writing is intelligent, witty, and visually stunning. Anyone who loves Indian culture or has a family will be drawn into the story of the sisters as they... Read morePublished on November 20, 2011 by V. A. Mann
After the death of their mother Gracie, Linno and Anju are raised in Kerala by their father, Melvin, and their grandmother Ammachi. Read morePublished on March 18, 2010 by Jennifer Cameron-Smith
My other two reviews on Amazon are largely negative. I picked up this book at the library as well. And that is where the similarity ends. Excellent book with memorable characters. Read morePublished on February 2, 2010 by A_Writer
My favorite things:
. Anju's culture shock in the curious world of New York City: "In gym, when someone passes her the basketball, Anju says, 'Thank you,' and... Read more
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... Read morePublished on September 26, 2009 by Terri Lee-Johnson