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ATLAS OF UNKNOWNS by Tania James. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. April 2009. $24.95. 336 pages.

Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns is a debut of grace and maturity. It is a story in which girls, and later women,  find their strengths when they are on the verge of giving in to that which engulfs them. Each colorful character is unforgettable, deliciously fashioned, and fully determined. They stand up to deceit and desires, changeable relationships, and the nasty realities of the immigration process, with aplomb and a sense of humor.

Atlas of Unknowns has its foundation in sisters split by circumstance, not by conscious choice. Their ties bind them more tightly when one is missing half a world away. Gripping, and often hilarious, the wild ride in Manhattan and the surprising ride in Kerala are shared separately by the sisters who discover their inner selves while trying to reunite.

After their mother Gracie’s suicide, Linno and Anju Vallara are looked after by their lackluster father, Melvin, and eccentric paternal grandmother in quiet Kumarakom, Kerala. Linno, reserved and self-conscious due to an amputated hand, is the complete opposite of younger, academically-superior Anju. Anju wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in New York city by passing off Linno’s artwork as her own. Although the scholarship is won on a lie, it is forged by admirable intentions: to get herself—and eventually Linno—to America, where Anju imagines they could only have a better life. Linno, conflicted by sisterly love for Anju and anger over her deceit, is silenced when Melvin tells her, “There is good and there is bad, Linno. And then there is bad for good’s sake.”

Eventually, her secret is revealed, and Anju is expelled from school. She runs away and enters the shadowy world of the illegal immigrant, assisted by a mysterious character named Bird. Anju finds work as a bikini-waxer in Jackson Heights and walks the tightrope between legal and illegal status while entangled in the messy pursuit of a green card.

Back home, Linno takes control of her own life and ends up accepting a business proposition that catapults her career into a global direction she never dreamed of. This allows her to develop a plan to find Anju.
Two concepts are the backbone of the novel. The unique, unpretentious bond that women develop is universal, and the fact that immigration dilemmas are less about the person than about the process. Both feed the soul of the book.

The relationships between the women are the jigsaw puzzle pieces connecting one to another: Gracie and Bird; Bird and Anju; Anju and Linno. However, the central bond is the natural, yet tense relationship between the sisters.

James, who is the middle of three sisters, explains via an email interview how her own family influenced her writing: “I have two sisters, and we are very close. I wouldn’t say that any one sister directly correlates with Anju or Linno, but I do think that the depth and intensity of my sisterly relationships have influenced the relationship between Anju and Linno. I also have this theory that the dynamic among three sisters is very different from the dynamic between two, because in a trio, one sister can act as a safety valve. When two out of three are fighting, the third can diffuse the situation. Between Anju and Linno, there is no such safety valve, and so there arises a silence between them, a tension more difficult to get around.”

She adds, “When I was writing the book, the adjective ‘strong-willed’ kept returning to me, particularly the way in which it connotes different things to different cultures/people. To men of Melvin’s generation, it’s a negative connotation, associated with obstinacy, an unwillingness to yield or listen, a useless pride. I tend to associate a strong will with courage and determination.”

Rather than focus on the experience of the immigrant, Atlas of Unknowns looks at the immigration system, that is neither reliable nor logical.

“I had been working on a documentary in which the subject was an Iraqi man who was seeking a work visa to the Czech Republic,” James relates. “Much of our footage was about him muddling through the immigration process as he struggled to find asylum in any country other than Iraq. Eventually, I, too, began muddling through the American immigration process, with the hope of trying to find any way of getting him to the United States. My research was pretty fruitless in that latter regard, but it led me to cases of people living in Jackson Heights who had been cheated out of their life savings by fake lawyers. Early on in the novel, it occurred to me that the entire visa process has become a huge high-stakes goal for many immigrants these days.”

With Atlas of Unknowns, James has written a novel of fascinating characters navigating unexpected opportunities while treading gently on precious associations. She keeps her finger on every detail, skillfully keeping the reader engaged in a literary game of chess. The depth of her insight and control of the plot exceed that expected of a first novel. James is without question an author to watch, and an author to be read.

“I’d like to leave my readers with a sense that they’ve inhabited a new world, with strong feelings about the people they encountered there,” James says. “I’d like for my readers to feel entertained, provoked to thought, though what those thoughts should be I dare not suggest.”

Atlas of Unknowns is a book to read, enjoy, and read again. And when you’ve done that, I dare suggest you share it with someone—a sister, a mother, an aunt, a cousin, a friend. They will thank you for it. No lie.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....