Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new novel, ONE AMAZING THING, has been getting a lot of publicity lately. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of publicity that an author would rarely court, even if it results in high-profile interviews, glossy profiles and an uptick in book sales. The recent Haitian earthquake, which has increased global attention on this poor and, in many ways, isolated country, has also brought increased attention to Divakaruni’s book, which is set in the immediate wake of a devastating earthquake.
As people watch on television scenes of desperation and unlikely rescues in Haiti, they may have a tendency to imagine what life is like following such a harrowing natural disaster, particularly for those desperate individuals trapped below acres of rubble, waiting for a rescue that might never arrive in time. ONE AMAZING THING is, on the simplest level, this kind of imagining fleshed out into a powerful novel, one that will resonate with everyone who has witnessed this recent earthquake.
Of course, ONE AMAZING THING is far more than a simple survival story. It is the culmination of many of the author’s long-standing themes, as well as a contemporary fable about the walls that separate all of us --- and about the powerful connections that can be discovered when those walls come crashing down.
The novel begins innocuously enough: a young woman, Uma, sits in the waiting room of the Indian passport office in an American city that sounds very much like San Francisco. She is impatient and entertains herself by observing the other people in the waiting room, each of whom must have his or her own reason for intending to visit India. “It was like a mini UN summit in here,” thinks Uma. And that’s when the earthquake strikes.
When the dust settles, there are injuries large and small, and people’s true natures come to the surface as they often do in desperate situations. One man, Cameron, an African American war veteran, takes immediate charge, but his brusque, take-charge manner rubs some of the other strangers the wrong way, particularly the young Muslim Tariq, who some view with suspicion. Tariq has his own reasons for being suspicious and defensive, but, as with the other members of the assorted company, his full story remains a mystery until, in the wake of a violent outburst triggered by fear and near-panic, Uma has a brainstorm.
She has been reading Chaucer’s THE CANTERBURY TALES, in which an assorted band of pilgrims tell each other tales --- bawdy, insightful, entertaining --- to pass the time and form connections. Why not do the same sort of thing, both to stave off despair and to find common ground? “Everyone has a story,” Uma tells the group. “I don’t believe anyone can go through life without encountering at least one amazing thing.” And so the survivors, in turn, tell each other their “one amazing thing” and discover much about each other --- and themselves --- in the process.
ONE AMAZING THING is the kind of novel that will stick in readers’ heads for a long time. Whether because it changes their perception and understanding of contemporary India and of minority groups in our own country, or because it inspires introspection --- encouraging people to identify that “one amazing thing” in their own lives --- Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest effort is a moving testament to the power of story.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 13, 2011
One Amazing Thing