TITLE: One Amazing Thing
AUTHOR: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
GENRE: Contemporary Fiction
PUBLISHED: February 2nd 2009
RATING: ★ ★ ★ ★
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon USA
MOBILISM LINK: Read!
Review: I'm a literature major student, and this semester one of the topics we covered is literature in diaspora, a very interesting subject to explore, with its various themes of displacement, alienation, assimilation, and migration in different books and stories. I enjoyed reading a lot of extra books, and picked up one of them to analyze for my final assignment. While One Amazing Thing is still fresh in my mind, I decided to write its review, so that no one else would miss out on Chitra Banerjee's wonderful writing.
One Amazing Thing is set in the Indian Consulate, in an American city, whose name has not been mentioned. The crux of the plot is that a massive earthquake hits, and 9 people are trapped inside the consulate. The inhabitants include consulate officers - Mangalam and Malathi, an older Chinese lady Jiang, with her granddaughter Lily, American youth of Pakistani origins Tariq, African American male - Cameron, college student Uma, whose parents are Indian, and a Caucasian couple - Pritchetts. One of the protagonist's Uma, remarks on the nature of the group:
"It was not uncommon, in this city, to find persons of different races randomly thrown together. Still, Uma thought, it was like a mini UN summit in here. Whatever were all these people planning to do in India?"
The novel begins on a simple note: people have been waiting since morning for the visa officer, Mangalam, to arrive and start the interviews. Uma is irritated at the delay, she cannot concentrate on her book, Cameron has a solemn demeanor, he had offered Uma a granola bar when her stomach grumbled with hunger. Tariq is sitting with a scowl on his face that, combined with his beard, makes an alarming impression. Mr. Pritchett had gone out to smoke twice, Mrs. Pritchett ignored her husband except to reply once, and Jiang was arguing with Lily, who has a typical rebellious teen attitude. Malathi had a smug, professional stance, which changed when Mangalam came at noon. In this mundane atmosphere, calamity hits, and tensions run high, as there is meager food and water, and all avenues of escape are cut off. Here, amidst volatile emotions, when a fight breaks out, Uma proposes an idea: Each person share a story, "one amazing thing" from their lives, to pass the time.
I loved the element of storytelling, how Banerjee has portrayed its power at breaking boundaries and bringing people together. Bit by bit, as each person ponders over the other's tale, we see the hidden layers in each character's personality: why does Jiang want to go to India with her family?, why is Uma torn between visiting her parents?, the reason behind Tariq's pent up frustration, Cameron's dark past, the Pritchett's troubled marriage. Mangalam and Malathi have been on the verge of an affair for weeks, but after the earthquake hits we see their justifications for the questionable behavior. The progression of the characters is like arcs colliding, for after knowing the other person's secret, and reaching an understanding, how can change not be inevitable?
"Looking back, I could not point to one special time and say, There! That's what is amazing, We can change completely and not recognize it. We think terrible events have made us into stone. But love slips in like chisel-and suddenly it is an ax, breaking us into pieces from the inside."
I admire Banerjee's unbiased writing, she has shown the lives of all the people in a subtle way, not pushing any opinion on the readers, but allowing them to see the depth of the characters. This makes the book stand out, not let any characters fall into the stereotypical category, and makes for a fascinating and very intriguing reading experience. Banerjee has clubbed many cultures, given each of them equal importance. Even though I probably don't need to say this, great description:
"Uma watched a flake of plaster float from the ceiling in a lazy dance until it disappeared into the implausibly green foliage of the plant that stood at attention in the corner."
The narrative technique of Banerjee's is also unique, the point of view (PoV) alternates between each of the characters, and everyone has his or her own distinct voice. This multiple narration was a bit confusing for me at first, but adds texture to a book that makes it all the more complex and fantastic. I was astonished to see how Banerjee managed to maintain the overall underlying tone of One Amazing Thing, along with so many characters and their thoughts, interpretations, and consequent actions. One maddening aspect is the book's plot: the reader does not know when the nine stories will twist this or that way, and despite the predictable quality, the end of each one is not (the) one I had envisioned. All the elements of marriage, love, friendship, ambition, jealousy and politics in the stories are intertwined, and you see that no matter where or who you are, some feelings are universal.
The end of the book is an abrupt cliffhanger, which made me want to search the book again and see if there is an epilogue or mention of a sequel I somehow missed. I'm not very fond of such endings, but I loved One Amazing Thing. I look forward to reading more novels by Chitra Banerjee, cliffhanger or no cliffhanger.
One Amazing Thing is for readers who do not mind multiple PoVs, complex characters, and a book that talks about issues that plague society, us all. If anyone feels this book might prove a 'heavy' read, they're not wrong, but its story is neither depressing nor frustrating, rather One Amazing Thing will leave you with a different perspective of life itself. And isn't that why we read in the first place? Highly recommended.