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Atlas of Unknowns

About the Book

Atlas of Unknowns

Set in the 1990s, in India and America, Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns is a poignant, complex, and often vibrantly humorous exploration of one family’s search for wholeness, a search that spans two continents and takes many twists and turns, both cultural and emotional.

Linno and Anju Vallara are growing up motherless and Christian in Kerala, India, raised by their well-meaning father, Melvin, and their fiercely opinionated grandmother Ammachi. The sisters have very different temperaments and talents --- Linno is an exceptional artist, despite having lost a hand as a young girl; Anju is highly intelligent and successful academically. When Anju is considered a candidate for a scholarship to study at a private high school in New York, she claims her sister’s artwork as her own --- and wins the scholarship on false pretenses. The dream of America is too tempting to let slip away.

Once she is in New York, Anju’s life changes radically. She stays with a wealthy American family of Indian heritage, headed by Mrs. Solanki, a well-known television talk show host. Anju’s daily routine includes navigating the subway system, assimilating to the social structures of an American high school, and befriending an intense and poetic boy named Fish --- all the while trying to maintain the precarious illusion of her artistic talent. When her deception is accidentally revealed to the administration, she runs away, cutting off all contact with her family. She seeks shelter with Bird --- a former actress whose history with Anju’s deceased mother is unknown to Anju --- who gets her a job at a beauty salon in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Back in India, Linno is considering the possible benefits of marriage to a sophisticated and wealthy blind man, Kuku, as arranged by her father. Ultimately deciding against this union, she throws herself into a burgeoning career as a designer of invitation cards, hoping to attain a level of success that will take her to the United States to find her sister. Both Linno and Melvin devise their own strategies to find Anju, even as it seems their contacts in New York have grown discouraged.

Wearied by her work as a bikini waxer and by her fruitless attempts to secure a green card, Anju finally finds a way to return home. A complicated plan devised by Anju and the Solankis enables Linno and Anju to meet again, and they reunite as women who have grown closer as a result of their separation—closer to each other, to the truth about their mother’s past and the devastating circumstances of her death, and to the strength of their own individual voices.

Atlas of Unknowns is a deeply satisfying novel that explores the conflicting and often painful emotions evoked by separating from home, culture, family, the truth of the past, and one’s familiar role. But it explores as well, with deep empathy and insight, the healing made possible by reconciliation. Each character’s individual journey leads to the recognition that they are in fact part of the same whole, bound by love, tethered to the past even as they long for freedom and a new life.

Atlas of Unknowns
by Tania James

  • Publication Date: April 21, 2009
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 030726890X
  • ISBN-13: 9780307268907