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Atlas of Unknownsby Tania James
Synopses & Reviews
The day begins wrong. Melvin feels it upon waking, as though he has slipped his right foot into his left shoe and must shuffle along with a wrong-footed feeling all day. That today is Christmas Eve brings no comfort at all.
It is not the first morning to begin this way. Throughout his forty-five years, Melvin Vallara has periodically awakened to a nuisance in his stomach, an inner itch of ill portent that could bode anything from a bee sting to a gruesome bull-on-bus accident. Both events occurred on his seventh birthday, and he still has not forgotten that bull, how it bounced on its back before landing on its side.
This is what the Bible says: I tell you the truth . . . no prophet is accepted in his hometown. Nor, Melvin would add, in his own family. His mother believes that the inner itch has more to do with gas than foresight, and like her mother before her, Ammachi calls upon an arsenal of unwritten remedies. She prepares a murky white goo from the boiled grounds of a medicinal root, while her granddaughter Linno watches from the doorway of the kitchen.
Which root? Linno asks.
“The name, I don't remember. A multipurpose root, Ammachi decides, borrowing an English phrase she heard from a Stain-Off commercial, one in which a cartoon soap sud possessed eyes and a smile.
Linno delivers the bowl of multipurpose root goo to her father, who is draped across his bed, an arm over his eyes. When he sees the bowl, he responds by turning away, onto his side. He is a man of few words, but clearly he and the goo have met before.
Linno believes. She is thirteen and dutiful, convinced that part of her duty is to champion her father's prophecies, even though he lacks the frothy beard and brooding of biblical prophets and his name falls short of the weight and might of an Elijah or a Mohammed. In fact, he more closely resembles the icon of a gloomy-eyed saint: slight, balding, his forehead growing longer by the year. Linno tries to make up for the little attention he gets by bestowing as much as she can, so she supports his decision to stay home from morning Mass. She also hopes that Ammachi might let her support him from home.
It is not to be. In the end, Linno leaves along with the rest of the family and returns from church to find Melvin still asleep, his hands in fists by his face, as if to pummel ill fortune away.
But then, there is the Entertainment to consider.
Melvin forgot to purchase the Entertainment from the Fancy Shoppe the day before, and now here they are-Linno and her younger sister, Anju—home from morning Mass with less than sixteen hours until midnight Mass, and no Entertainment? Unacceptable. Unfair. The Entertainment is tradition, a promise upon waking, a beautiful, blinding answer to the holy punishments of morning. Without the Entertainment, there is only the looming threat of carolers who travel from house to house, proud as roosters in their red mufflers, belting melodies and collecting church donations all through the night.
Late afternoon breezes swell the sun-gilded trees that lift and sigh, sifting the light between their branches. There is still time left in the day to visit the Fancy Shoppe, if Melvin can be persuaded. Ammachi refuses to go back out once she has unpinned the Christmas brooch from her shoulder, a brass dove that she nests in its velvet-lined case,
Winning a scholarship to a prestigious school in New York, Anju leaves her sister behind in Kerala, India, and enters the elite world of her Hindu American host family.
An utterly irresistible first novel: The story of two sisters, the yearning to disappear into another country, and the powerful desire to return to the known world. Linno is a gifted artist, despite a childhoodaccident that has left her badly maimed, and Anju is one of Kerala's most promising students. Both girls dream of coming to the United States, but it is Anju who wins a scholarship to a prestigious school in NewYork. She seizes it, even though it means lying and betraying her sister. When her lie is discovered, Anju disappears. Back in Kerala, Linno is undergoing a transformation of her own. But when she learns ofAnju's disappearance, Linno strikes out farther still, with a scheme to procure a visa so that she can come to America to look for her sister and save them both.
From theTrade Paperback edition.
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.
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