If there’s one thing would-be authors could stand to learn from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s 20-year literary career, it’s her uncanny ability to churn out product. Her latest novel, One Amazing Thing, revisits the fundamentals of the Divakaruni method: invoke a sense of exuberant melodrama and shameless sentimentality unencumbered by the likes of subtlety or understatement — with an almost bewildering efficiency. Before they can even realise it, readers are dosed with enough easily digested bromides to kill a horse.
Taking an ambitious cue from The Canterbury Tales, Divakaruni recasts the pilgrims as nine men and women trapped in an US Indian visa office after an earthquake brings the building down around them — two south Indian immigrants in their 30s or 40s, two young Indo-Americans, an Indo-Chinese grandmother-granddaughter duo, a WASP-y couple in their 70s, and one black man. In an effort to keep their spirits up as the hope of rescue or escape dims, they take turns telling each other “one amazing thing”, or a condensed life-story.
Though a clever conceit skillfully rendered, the characters are steamrolled paper-thin and the prevailing sensibility is that of the author’s own voice telling somebody else’s story. That Cameron, the black army veteran from an inner-city ghetto struggling to face up to a life-altering decision he took as a young man, sounds no different than Malathi, a sari-clad ex-beauty salon worker from Coimbatore now working as an assistant in the visa office, is confounding and inexplicable. How the same Tamil Nadu woman — who, readers are told, barely speaks English — is found expressing such literary turns as “a girl from a middle-class Brahmin family, handicapped by respectability” further aggravates.
After a promising build-up, the characters’ uninspired ‘one amazing things’ are doubly disappointing — angry young Muslim Tariq’s flirtation with the hardline is simply the product of post-9/11 anti-Islam paranoia in the US; Jiang the India-born grandmother, flees Kolkata amid a wave of anti-China sentiment during the 1962 Sino-Indian War and is bundled off by her family to a US-bound professional, who she learns to love and eventually has children with; the unstable Mrs Pritchett has developed an anti-depressant addiction and attempted suicide because she felt her husband didn’t love her enough.
This parade of monotony dressed up in worn platitudes is a frustrating dead end: even if she’s repeating herself, Divakaruni has something interesting to say about the scars of personal experience — and how age and perception affect one’s understanding of transformative life moments — but ultimately remains silent. Her unwillingness to complicate or explore the very narrative framework she sets out, offering easy truisms instead, is frustrating and undercuts any momentum the book threatens to build up, like Mr Pritchett’s troubled childhood or the shifting narrative voices at the beginning of the novel.
The Authorial Voice’s rapidfire pacing races through the story as if it can’t wait to get to the end; somewhere along the line, it forgets where it even began — further along the line, some readers might secretly hope for a final aftershock to shake some life back into this workmanlike effort.