Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2020

One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I stumbled on this intriguing book at my local library, attracted firstly by the name (because I like Indian fiction) and then by the blurb. It’s a kind of contemporary Canterbury Tales, i.e. stories told by a group of strangers, but in this case they are linked by being trapped in a building damaged in an earthquake.

In that sense it reminds me of Ann Patchett’s Orange Prize winner Bel Canto—based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis—and of Simone Lazaroo’s Sustenance which featured a group of tourists trapped in an Indonesian hotel by terrorists.  These characters in extremis open up to each other because they think they have nothing to lose. Facing a likely death, they reflect on their lives and identities and are able to be honest with each other because they are being honest with themselves.

The characters in One Amazing Thing are stuck in a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city: they are all en route to India for one reason or another.  They are, as the blurb suggests, a diverse bunch of people:

A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11. A graduate student haunted by a question about love. An African-American ex-soldier searching for redemption. A Chinese grandmother with a secret past. And two visa office workers on the verge of an adulterous affair.

The collective struggle to survive begins with identifying which parts of the building are comparatively safe, and accessing food and water.  Without much argument, the leader who coordinates this is Cameron, whose experience as a soldier has given him skills in crisis management.  He holds the torch which provides the only light, and he assesses the state of the space they are in, and harvests the snacks the travellers have, for sharing.  At the beginning they have access to tapwater in the manager’s personal toilet, and the water which is seeping in from somewhere is only enough to soak the carpet.  Cameron also lays down the ground rules: no shouting or sudden movements which might trigger further damage to the walls or ceiling.

But group cooperation only goes so far.  The other young man resents the unquestioned assumption of power by Cameron and he resents being ordered about.  A smoker craving a cigarette risks an explosion from the gas leak.  One hides her tranquilisers and becomes more relaxed than is wise, and another has a secret stash of booze.  The exceptionalism which led them to migrate to America or transcend their personal circumstances doesn’t vanish because they are in this life-or-death situation, even as the waters rise and the building quivers around them.

In the wake of a crisis which nearly led to immediate disaster, Uma (who was reading Chaucer which she was reading to make up for a university class she was missing) suggests that they each tell a personal story, one amazing thing from their lives, which they have never told anyone before. As the hours pass without rescue, and punctuated by tension that rises with the waters, they take it in turns to tell stories of love and family, regrets and shame, guilt and redemption.

The reader, as the novel progresses, becomes invested in the characters. As the sense of unease deepens, it’s difficult to resist sneaking a look at the last pages to find out if they survive.

One Amazing Thing is Divakaruni’s twelth work of fiction for adults but she also writes for children.  Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove links and footnotes) tells us that she was born and educated in Calcutta but is now a teacher of writing at the University of Houston.

Her short story collection, Arranged Marriage won an American Book Award in 1996, and two of her novels (The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart) as well as a short story The Word Love were adapted into films. Mistress of Spices was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Currently, Sister of My Heart, Oleander Girl, Palace of Illusions, and One Amazing Thing have all been optioned to be made into movies or TV serials.

[…] Divakaruni’s works are largely set in India and the United States, and often focus on the experiences of South Asian immigrants. [She] has published novels in multiple genres, including realistic fiction, historical fiction, magical realism, myth and fantasy.

There’s an amazing roll call of blurbers on the back cover: Jhumpa Lahiri, Louise Erdrich, Ha Jin, Lisa See and Abraham Verghese.  IMO, their praise is well-deserved.

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Title: One Amazing Thing
Book design by Shubbani Sarkar
Publisher: Voice, Hyperion (Harper Collins), 2009
ISBN: 9781401340995, hbk, 220 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: One Amazing Thing


Responses

  1. It reminded me of Bel Canto too! I’ve found her books consistently enjoyable. (I’ve read two others, Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart) and very readable, but I’ve always kinda wished there was a little more layering to them or something. Maybe I was just expecting too much? Anyway, I really liked them, but didn’t love them.

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    • What’s interesting is that with the passage of the days, I’ve forgotten most of the individual stories, but the situation and the interactions between them has remained. I’ll look out for more of hers, I think,

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  2. Personally, I think they may have been too stressed to tell stories, but I understand the impulse. In my experience personal stories start to flow when working late at night, generally with just one other guy (It’s a long time since I worked with women).

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    • I don’t know… if penned up for hours, in the face of possible death, one might be reflecting over one’s life, and if prompted by the idea of choosing an amazing thing to reflect on — when the most likely thing would be to reflect on regrets and guilt — maybe revealing events long-kept private would help to endure the unendurable?

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  3. […] ANZ LitLovers LitBlog stellt One Amazing Thing von Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni vor. […]

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