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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Atlas of Unknowns

James, Tania. Atlas of Unknowns.

I really liked this ARC, a debut novel by Tania James, and certainly hope to hear more from this gifted author.

The story is of a Christian Indian family: Melvin, who raises his two young daughters after his wife's death; Ammachi, the grandmother; Linno, the elder daughter and talented artist; Anju, the younger daughter and scholar. There are many more fascinating and well-developed minor characters who add interest and spice to the novel, but the essential story involves family relationships.

James' language is beautiful and descriptive, never over-elaborate, and often deceptively simple. I love this scene of Melvin, with Linno riding sidesaddle on his bicycle, on the way to a shop:

"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 bends low, each falling in love with its likeness, while webs of light spangle the dark undersides of the leaves."
The calm simplicity of the author's style works so beautifully with the complexity of the characters, their relationships, and the situations in which they find themselves. The setting begins and ends in India, but a good portion of the novel also takes place in New York as we follow Anju, who wins a scholarship to a school in America.

The novel also explores immigration: the Indians who wish to come to America, the difficulties involved in doing so, and the Indian community in New York.

James has created some wonderful characters, even her minor characters come off the page so well as to make the reader feel their impact. They feel real.

Atlas of Unknowns - Tania James - Final Spot from Khushi Films on Vimeo.

I highly recommend this one. Has anyone else read it? Let me know, and I'll post a link to your review.

Fiction. 2009. 319 pages.


  1. I love when authors make all their characters well-rounded and knowable. Based on her reading, I think I'd like her style. Thanks for the review!

  2. I'm really looking forward to reading this one. Thanks for posting about it! The cover is beautiful, it reminds me of this one:

  3. I really like the cover! Not sure if it is my type of book, but if the library gets a copy I might have to check it out!

  4. Ali - I really liked this one and hope others will, too!

    Leslie - It is a beautiful cover and so is the one for Nadeem Aslam's book (the one you provided the link for). Speaking of Aslam, I loved his The Wasted Vigil and need to read Maps for Lost Lovers.

    Kailana - I love the cover, too! The book may not appeal to you, but if you decide to give it a try, I hope you like it!

  5. This sounds like a book that I would like. I love books that take place in the context of cultures different from my own. I loved the passage you selected, too. It is beautiful, almost poetic.

  6. Rebecca - I hope others will like it as much as I did! It is a low-key, but moving story...