Monday, July 20, 2015

The Americans

Title:  The Americans
Author:  Chitra Viraraghavan
Publication Information:  Fourth Estate India. 2015. 296 pages.
ISBN:  9351369854 / 978-9351369851

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The kid screamed as if someone had cut open a vein."

Favorite Quote:  "There always seemed to be a larger story in which they were minor characters. When would they be free to have their own stories?"

The back cover copy of this book reads, "a poignant and universal story about the immigrant experience and the search for identity." A hefty premise and one that has been beautifully handled in other books such as The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. This book deals with immigrants from India.

This book unfortunately fails to deliver on the promise of insight into the immigrant experience. It does not work for me for several reasons.

First is the structure of the story. The book proceeds chapter by chapter through almost a dozen points of view. The dozen different stories have only one commonality - the young woman Tara who is a visitor to the United States. Other than that, the stories proceed independently. Often times, the connection is too tangential to hold the book together in a cohesive whole. I find myself getting lost and have to think back to remember the story line being picked up in any given chapter.

Second is the nature of the stories. The individual perspectives exhibit so many different facets of life - marriage, pull between motherhood and career, pull between parent and child, and a differently able child to name a few. While the issues are important ones to the human experience, in this book they overshadow the main thrust of the story which is supposed to be the immigrant experience. That gets lost in the other stories.

Third is how the immigrant experience is addressed when it is the direct focus of the book. For example, the direct statement "These damn people, was the problem with America" appears in italics and is attributed to the internal thoughts of a police officer. Does prejudice exist? Yes, of course it does. It exists everywhere in the world. In a book about the immigrant experience, that can be demonstrated in many different ways that would be considerably more effective than an overt statement such as this one. The fact that this statement occurs in the middle of an over the top absurd situation makes it even less effective as a depiction of true immigrant experience. Picture a woman in a robe rushing out, grabbing the first stranger to help find her niece, grabbing another young man to help, and then running into a police raid. Admittedly, people can act irrationally in a moment of panic, but this description goes a bit too far.

Finally is the writing style itself. This book is quite descriptive in nature. For example, a Mustang (the car) is described as it "sparkled in the afternoon sunshine, sweet as a jam tart." A jam tart. In another spot, a half a page is devoted to a character's groceries as he walks through the store and puts items in his cart. Another description states, "He could see roads come together and go apart like bright strands of spaghetti, and the cars on them crawling like bugs."

This book is not quite a collection of short stories, but it is also not quite a novel for it never comes together in a single whole. It also is not the insight into the immigrant experience that the cover seems to indicate. Ultimately, it is unfortunately not the book for me.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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