Title: Atlas of Unknowns
Author: Tania James
Release Date: April 21, 2009
Genre: Literary Fiction, Multicultural Fiction
Source: Curled Up With a Good Book
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Teenagers Linno and Anju Vallara are sisters living in Kumarakom in Kerala, India. A childhood accident has left the elder Linno with only one hand. She finds her solace in artwork and is a talented painter, becoming more and more recognized around the city for her designs. Anju, on the other hand, is devoted to school and is at the top of her class.
A slot in a top New York City high school opens up as part of an exchange program, and Anju is desperate for the chance to go to an American high school. However, during the interview, she makes an impulsive decision that, while securing her the position, will haunt her.
I was lucky enough to meet Tania James at the Washington, DC South Asian Literary Festival in November 2009. I already had her book to read at the time, but hadn’t had a chance to pick it up yet. Her reading from the book and answers to questions posed by a moderator and the audience piqued my curiosity even more, so I resolved to come home and read it as soon as I got a chance. Of course, it took a few months, but I’m glad I took the time to read this book – it’s everything I thought it would be and more.
Atlas of Unknowns is a beautifully written story about two sisters living a world apart. Anju is unsure of herself, despite the fact that she has proven herself academically. Her insecurity makes her selfish, a believable teenager trying to find her place in the world. She isn’t sure where she fits, and is unable to figure out how to carve herself a niche in a world she doesn’t understand.
Linno, on the other hand, is much more secure. Because of the fact she only has one hand and doesn’t try hard in school, she assumes that her life will be dull. She is completely willing to step aside for her younger sister and let herself be overshadowed because she doesn’t think she deserves anything better than what she has. When the opportunity for advancement and a better life presents itself, Linno hardly knows what to think. For so long, she trained herself to never hope and never aspire so she wouldn’t be disappointed. It’s very gratifying to see her succeed.
At its core, Atlas of Unknowns is about how we fit into the world, and how our families help us with that task. Anju and Linno both forge ahead on their own, but they aren’t complete without those ties to the past, without understanding where they came from and how they came to be. They also need each other to really understand their own identities. It’s a beautiful tribute to the power of sisters.
Though this is her debut novel, Tania James’ writing is confident and beautiful. It’s hard to believe that this is her first novel because she she writes each word so deftly and poetically. Her writing makes this book a joy to read.
Atlas of Unknowns was an incredible book that I highly recommend if you are interested in multicultural fiction or immigration stories. The Vallara girls’ search for identity is a wonderful story and I simply cannot wait for James’ next novel.