I discovered this debut novel after seeing an article on Electric Lit by author R.O. Kwon 48 Books By Women and Nonbinary Authors of Color to Read in 2019. I recognised many, but a new name that jumped out at me was debut author Devi S. Laskar.
Kwon added the book to her list based on a recommendation by writer, editor and professor Kiese Laymon, who said he’d “never read a novel that does nearly as much in so few pages,” and that the book is “as narratively beautiful as it is brutal.”
“Devi S .Laskar has written a beautiful, harrowing fever dream of a novel. This is a book that insists on no uncertain terms and despite horrific institutional and everyday racism that South Asian Americans are indeed Americans. This is a book I have been waiting a very long time for. A monumental achievement.”
Before telling you about the novel, I’ll just share that I found it masterful. I hadn’t meant to read it too quickly, but I was so entranced and captivated by it, by the voice, by the structure, by its fierce intelligence and grasp of so many aspects, that I couldn’t help myself but read it in two sittings. However, I recommend you take your time, as it deserves close reading.
I’ve since looked at it again and tried to analyse what the author has done, how this novel, that is also an essay, a social commentary, a dual narrative of one characters perspective, past and present, works. It’s a stunning piece of literature, thoroughly deserved of the praise mentioned above. I would love to see it make tonight’s shortlist for the Women’s Fiction Prize 2019.
The Atlas of Reds and Blues takes place over the course of a morning. In the opening line, a woman we will come to know as The Mother has just been shot in her driveway:
Now this fainting, this falling, this landing so ungainly.
A working mother whose husband is often away on business moves her family from Atlanta to the suburbs, discovering not much has changed since her childhood in a small Southern town.
She embodies a second generation American experience, viewed through vivid snippets of her working and family life, looking back, recounting memories that have lead to this moment. It is told by one character but in a dual narrative, (1) the semi-conscious present moment, a stream-of-consciousness awareness of what she sees, hears, smells, feels and wonders, lying there unmoving and (2) short chapters of the past, both recent as The Mother and further back as the Real Thing, daughter of Bengali immigrants. All the characters are referred to with labels such as Baby Sister, Middle Daughter, her hero, man of the hour, similar to Anna Burns’s Milkman.
The present moment narrative arrives in short staccato-like bursts, sometimes a sentence, maybe two, a snatch of dialogue, an unbidden memory, a flash of blue sky, a moment of lucidity. This a more lengthy example:
“She closes her eyes and a kaleidoscope appears, the blue of the sky giving way to the red pulse of pain near her stomach…The pain is less when she doesn’t give in to the light show. But the light show is hard to ignore: every time she opens or closes her eyes, the blues and blood reds are reinvented; she is witnessing the continents shifting, the tectonic plates of years shifting and crashing into each other.”
It is a beautiful, bittersweet cornucopia of blues and reds, colours littered throughout the text alluding to a multitude of contrasts.
Though ostensibly a novel, on closer rereading, I wonder if it has elements of an essay, something I have a heightened awareness of at the moment, after attending a wonderful talk last week by writer Jennifer Delahunty entitled ‘The Art and Power of the Personal Essay, from Montaigne to Zadie Smith’.
Asked about the difference between the essay and an Op-Ed (Opinion Editorial) she described the essay as posing a question the writer is able to explore without necessarily positing an opinion, the intention being to encourage engagement with the subject by the reader.
Our protagonist lying bleeding on her driveway, poses questions that the ensuing chapters serve to explore. She uses the symbol of the doll to illustrate the complexity of being non-white growing up in America and thus poses her question.
Like children, most dolls are made only to be seen, put on display. Real live dolls are taught to remain stoic, bear witness in silence, no matter how the consumer judges. The radio dispatcher squawks and a policeman’s voice describes her: Black hair. Brown skin. Gray sweatpants. Brown T-shirt. Flip-flops.
The dispatcher’s voice drawls. “Is she Black?” A lawn mower sputters to life nearby and drowns out the policeman’s reply.
Third Monday of May 2010. When you put American clothes on a brown-skinned doll, what do people see? The clothes? Or the whole doll? Or only the skin?
Fifty or so pages later, another reference:
The question can be stripped bare, a striped white line on the highway separating those stuck in traffic from those who are flying down the road: Has anything of significance changed in the last forty-three years?
There is a section entitled Inciting Incidents:
…in which the narrator attempts to decide which particular incident set her on the path of this particular life story, concrete driveway and all, without sprinkling regret and bitterness over everything upon which she stews, without uttering the word no…
Fourteen potential inciting incidents follow, thought-provoking turning points in the Mother’s life, incidents that culminate over time, leading to resistance or acceptance. The first time they read as more experiences, the second time I read more closely looking for the incident, seeing the accumulation of “isms” she has encountered as a woman of colour in the workplace, a neighbour, wife, sister and mother to daughters in today’s America.
What does it mean truly, to be invisible? Her stillness, her ability to remain calm while high-decibel insults are hurled inches from her face and ears. To pretend nothing has been said. To pretend deafness. Or her chameleon’s ability to blend in, a nondescript body in a dark blouse and black jeans leaning against the pay phone at the hospital waiting room, or standing outside the courtroom’s double doors or by the fire engine at the crime scene, yellow do not cross tape isolating one place from its larger context. To pretend the oak tree across the street’s steadfast patience, to pretend paralysis. To watch but pretend blindness. Never look anyone on the eye. Or maybe restraint. Knowing her lack of reaction is the only thing keeping her alive, over and again. Knowing the first time she hits back is the last time she’ll ever have the opportunity to do so.
Laskar is first and foremost a poet, so while it may have been described as harrowing, it also illuminates. Her captivating prose and lyrical repetition draw the reader in, creating a desire to unravel the mystery her many literary devices allude to, to step back from the pieces and see the whole. The book’s structure is inspired by one of her favorite poetry forms, the pantoum, a Malayan folk poem or verse form. In a pantoum, a phrase is repeated throughout, subtle changes in meaning occur due to different contexts.
“This book is one giant pantoum because the beginning is the end, and she’s considering things over and over.” Devi S. Laskar
It was also partly inspired by a raid on her home, where a gun was pointed at her and she experienced her life flash in front of her eyes.
Almost impossible to review, it is a thought-provoking, unique novel that I haven’t stopped thinking about long after finishing it. Brilliant. Highly Recommended, likely to be one of my favourite reads of 2019.
N.B. Thank you kindly to Counterpoint Press for sending me a copy to review.