- The Washington Times - Friday, February 12, 2010

ONE AMAZING THING

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Voice, $23.99

240 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

Chitra Divakaruni’s “One Amazing Thing” begins with Uma reading Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” as she waits in the basement visa office of an Indian consulate in California. Uma needs a visa so she can visit her parents, who, after years of working in America, have returned to their homeland. Others wanting visas include a middle-aged white couple, a young man of Indian descent, a black American man, and a Chinese woman and her granddaughter. But things are moving slowly. The clerk, whose name turns out to be Malathi, takes her time, often making excuses to walk through the door marked Mr. V.K.S. Mangalam, to consult with her boss.

Uma, who is annoyed at her parents’ departure, is irritated by the slowness of it all, and pays little attention to distant rumbles - just a passing cable car, she thinks. Then suddenly, “The rumble rose through the floor. This time there was no mistaking its intention. It was as though a giant had placed his mouth against the building’s foundation and roared. The floor buckled throwing Uma to the ground. The giant took the building in both hands and shook it. A chair flew across the room toward Uma. She raised her left arm to shield herself. The chair crashed into her wrist and a pain worse than anything she had known surged through her arm.”

Uma’s wrist is fractured, and she and the rest of the visa seekers are trapped in the consulate as a major earthquake destroys the building. Compared with many earthquake victims, they are lucky. No one apart from Uma is injured. The office has chairs and tables. Malathi finds a flashlight and a minimalist first-aid kit. Mr. Mangalam even has a private bathroom that remains functioning for quite a while, so they have sufficient water. Food is more of a problem, but snacks culled from everyone’s totes plus a few office supplies rounded up by Malathi stave off any threat of immediate starvation.

Obviously, though, people are scared, and they have different ideas of how to help themselves. Immediately, Tariq, the young Indian man, rushes to the door. Cameron, the American man, knocks him out to prevent him from opening it. In the Army, Cameron had learned that doorways help support a building; opening the office door may therefore precipitate a roof collapse. Indeed, one of the additional ways in which Cameron’s companions are lucky is that he is well-versed in emergency procedures.

Nevertheless, while the fate of these nine people does not include death, dreadful injury or the torments of thirst, they are afraid, and get more so, as the smell of gas percolates into the waiting room. Seeping water eventually forces them to take refuge on the tables, and Cameron strictly rations use of the flashlight. As patience frays, Uma suggests that each in turn tell an important story from their life. “I don’t believe anyone can go through life without encountering one amazing thing,” she counters when someone demurs.

Surprisingly, the Chinese grandmother, Jiang, who had previously conversed only in Chinese, now speaks in Indian-accented English as she explains how she belonged to the long-established Chinese community of Calcutta but was exiled when India and China went to war in 1962. Later, Malathi explains that she only ever wanted to own a beauty salon. We hear the affluent accountant, Mr. Pritchard, describe his impoverished childhood and his love for both his mother and the tiny kitten he found in a dump. Mr. Mangalam confesses to the sadness of his marriage, Mrs. Pritchett to her longing for a child and her plan never to return from her trip to India.

The appeal of these life stories, like that of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” is that they throw the spotlight onto varied lives, each with its own joys and miseries. The officious Malathi, for example, emerges as a young woman with a clear sense of justice and of what she wants from life. Though her crush on her boss may derail her ambitions, readers feel she will get what she wants - if she ever gets out of that fated visa office. Mr. and Mrs. Pritchett’s tales show how their marriage has foundered on lack of communication. Jiang’s tale of her exile from Calcutta opens doors on a historical event that is little known in the West.

Together, the stories show how easy it is to divert young lives into unforeseen and restrictive channels, and how hard it is for people to realize their early dreams. Their shared experiences and fears form the frame that holds together this compendium of short stories into an absorbing novel.

“One Amazing Thing” is Ms. Divakaruni’s 16th book. Its weakness is that she fails to give her characters their own voices when they are telling their tales, relying on a polished narrative rather than re-creating their hesitancy as they try to express their profoundest hopes and sorrows. But in other ways, she handles her material deftly, directing readers’ attention from the physical details of their general plight to the group dynamics as they counter the threats and fears that menace them, and then to the emotional lives of each one as they huddle three to a tabletop between the rising water and a ceiling that could crash down at any minute. At the end of her novel, her readers are fully engaged in what will happen to those nine people as water and gas seep into the basement and rescuers - perhaps - get near.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.