Review: “One Amazing Thing” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
I first heard about One Amazing Thing, the newest novel from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, earlier this year, a few weeks after it came out. A coworker handed the book to me and said, “Doesn’t this look interesting?” I read the synopsis and agreed, but the book remained at the periphery of my attention until my recent trip to India, when it caught my eye on a bookstore shelf and became one of my souvenirs.
It’s a slender novel, weighing in at just over 200 pages. Devakaruni writes in a clear and artful no-frills style. She employs minimal description, yet her characters are well defined — she allows them to speak for themselves.
As the novel opens, nine people are going about their business in the visa office of the Indian Consulate of a large but unnamed American city. There is Mr. Mangalam, the manager, and Malathi, his assistant; there are seven people awaiting, with varying degrees of patience, their visa appointments. We meet Uma, a young Indian woman who reads Chaucer and thinks of her boyfriend to pass the time.
Suddenly, a massive earthquake strikes, bringing the building down around the nine people and trapping them within it. Their roles as manager and secretary and applicants evaporate, and they become cellmates in their basement prison. The narrative focus flits from person to person as they size one another up and assess their shared situation. They are suspicious of one another, a short-tempered band of strangers thrown together by chance and none too happy about it.
Then Uma has an idea. She suggests that each person tell a story from his or her life. And so, slowly, as the building deteriorates around them, the characters begin to speak. And as they do, they gradually transform from secretive, tightly wrapped buds into lovely blooms — even as oxygen becomes scarce and the water beneath their feet continues to rise.
One Amazing Thing is the sort of book that stays with you for a while once you’ve turned the final page, echoing around in your mind. It makes you think, makes you mentally turn the book over and over as you try to grasp everything it’s offered you. You find yourself looking at each person you encounter in a new, gentler light. Wherever you are, you look around and wonder, “If I were trapped with these people, what stories would I hear? What story would I tell?”
The day I finished One Amazing Thing, I asked the coworker who’d originally brought it to my attention if she’d gotten around to reading it. It turns out she, too, had just finished and loved it. We wondered together why more people haven’t heard of One Amazing Thing and resolved to remedy the problem. It’s the kind of book that, once you read it, you want to share with everyone you know. And so, dear readers, I leave you with a recommendation: go and spend a few hours with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s One Amazing Thing. I think you’ll be glad you did.