“Wise and hilarious [Tania James’s] Atlas of Unknowns is an astonishment of a debut, so radiant with life, with love, with good old human struggle that I had trouble detaching myself from its pages. James’s prevaricating bikini–waxing husband–dodging beautiful-crazy sisters followed me into my day, into my dreams. Take this book from someone, give it to someone–you will not go wrong. Atlas is that damned good.”
—Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
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.
Download the reading group guide.
From our interview with Tania James:
Q: You’re only 28, you have degrees from Harvard and Columbia and this is your debut novel. Have you always been an overachiever?
A: Until recently, one of my grandmothers was under the impression that I was on my way to becoming a Supreme Court Justice. Which is what I told her when I was ten, and ever since, she’d been cherishing an image of me as an Indian Bader-Ginsburg. So I guess I’ve overachieved in some respects, and underachieved in others.
Q: Your undergraduate degree was in filmmaking. What made you want to get an MFA in writing?
A: For me, college was a completely wonderful and unrealistic place where I could write short stories and make 16mm films, simultaneously, but I also became aware that if I never focused on one discipline at a time, after college, they would both remain hobbies. I decided to apply to film and writing MFA programs, and in the end, I was drawn toward writing. Looking back, I don’t think that writing was ever really a choice; it was the landscape I felt most comfortable in, the medium in which I felt most free to explore. But I can’t say that the multitude of film students in this city, hulking around their trunks of equipment, don’t make me nostalgic and jealous. Maybe that’s why I wrote about one.
Forthcoming tour dates:
|4/30/2009||Boston Public Library
700 Boylston St
Boston, MA 0211
|5/5/2009||Greater Richmond Convention Center
|5/8/2009||The Rudyard Kipling
422 West Oak St
Louisville, KY 4020
2720 FRANKFORT AVENUE
LOUISVILLE, KY 40206