Sometimes, just for a change of pace, I like to take a side trip into an author's back catalog. That's how I happened upon Atlas of Unknowns—it was an impulse, after I heard about James's latest novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, which sounded quite good but not exactly what I was in the mood for. I decided to see if James had written any other books, and if (even better) I could check one out from the library for a full four weeks without waiting on a holds list.
When I read the publisher's blurb for Atlas of Unknowns, I was intrigued. Two sisters, Linno and Anju, live with their father and grandmother in the Indian state of Kerala. The girls' mother is dead, though the cause and circumstances aren't clear at first because the family doesn't discuss it. When Linno suffers a disfiguring accident and withdraws within herself, it is as if the sisters' relationship grows into a tangle of thorns, too sharp and dense to pass through without pain. Anju escapes to the US on a student visa obtained on the basis of a lie, setting in motion a reckoning for both sisters, forcing them to grapple with their individual guilt and confront the truth of what happened to their mother.
James's prose is lovely, dense, not the kind you can easily speed through. I found myself slowing down as I read, rolling the words over in my mouth. I was also slowed (and I think this is a good thing, the best thing) by the foreignness of the characters' culture. I wanted to understand them, their feelings and losses and hurts, and to do that I had to read slow, ears pricked, shedding my American white-girl preconceptions. The undeniable connection between Linno and Anju resonated within me, and the way their regret and shame from the past threatened to separate them broke my heart.
I love books like this, that bring the invisible fissures between family members into focus, that make the tiniest detail into something that looms large with meaning. Atlas of Unknowns is one back catalog excursion I'm glad I made time for.