Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James

Atlas of Unknowns was the June 2016 selection for the SBC (the accidental book club I started with my sister). Comment below, or check out our Goodreads group to join the discussion.


4330608I am not sure why I finished this book. Maybe it’s just because I love stationery and enjoyed the invitation card subplot. Because I wasn’t really engaged with the characters, most of whom I found flat, and much of what happened I found either overdone (like the documentary film thing and the points about immigration, which were excellent points but were handled in too heavy-handed a fashion to feel very poignant to me).

And the ending was a particular disappointment. Characters acted in ways that I found inconsistent, and the portrayal of seven-year-old Linno didn’t seem realistic to me. Based both on my experience of seven-year-olds and on the way James wrote her parents, I find it highly unlikely that Linno would have been aware of the America debate, much less reflecting on it to the depth that she did.

Two things I found interesting:

1. Near the end, James writes, “a person is more important in her absence than in her presence.” (315) This is a theme that features prominently in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which I read (and loved) earlier this year. It was interesting seeing it here because it’s an idea that I particularly enjoy turning over in my mind, and its brief mention in Atlas of Unknowns has given me a chance to reflect on why it worked well for me in Robinson’s novel but not in James’s. I think the difference is that Robinson allowed the theme to weave itself throughout the story—Ruthie and Lucille’s mother’s absence is present all the time, even when it’s not mentioned directly (which it rarely is)—while James just mentions it briefly in that one direct statement. It seems almost like an afterthought rather than an integral part of James’s novel.

2. Linno’s confession reminded me of a scene in Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies in which a main character reflects on the long-term effects of something that happens as a child. I didn’t particularly enjoy Groff’s novel, but after reading James’s novel, I have a greater appreciation for that scene and her handling of it and the surrounding theme. I had thought that Groff’s scene was overly shocking, but now I appreciate both that she just went for it and that she circled around it a few times before she did so. If something really, really affects someone as a core part of her life, it’s not just going to suddenly resurface as a whole all at once. It’s going to come back in bits and pieces triggered by daily occurrences—smells, sounds, actions, the slant of the light. We really have no inkling of this memory of Linno’s before she confesses it; I find that not only unrealistic but lacking in punch.

I wouldn’t say that I regret finishing this book, but I probably could have stopped about a third of the way through and not suffered any ill effects. Tania James has some very good ideas and has the capacity to write a scene that’s both sensorially and emotionally vibrant, especially in the beginning of the novel, like in the telling of Linno’s accident. But I got the sense that she tried to do too much in Atlas of Unknowns. She seemed not to really have a strong sense of what the novel was about at its core. Is it about immigration? Is it about sister relationships? Is it about arranged marriage? Culture’s effect on our actions? Religion? Friendship? Parental loss? Cultural or dispositional disorientation? In the novel, James touched on a lot of these things but never delved in deeply enough for my taste.

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