Cameron switched off both flashlights. But in spite of the claustrophobic dark that fell on them, Uma sensed a new alertness in her companions, a shrugging off of things they couldn’t control. They were ready to listen to one another. No, they were ready to listen to the story, which is sometimes greater than the person who speaks it. – from One Amazing Thing, page 70 –
One Amazing Thing begins in a nondescript passport and visa office where nine people are waiting to secure their travel papers to India: a black man named Cameron (who is a Vietnam Veteran), a Chinese woman (Jiang) and her granddaughter Lily, a young Muslim man named Tariq who is struggling to find his place in the world after 9-1-1, an older couple (Mr. and Mrs. Prichett) whose marriage is strained, Uma (a college girl) whose parents live in India, the visa office manager Mangalam and his assistant Malathi. Suddenly an earthquake strikes and the building collapses, trapping everyone. Immediately Cameron takes control, treating injuries, calming people and making a plan for survival. But as time slips by and water begins to fill the basement, panic and fear take hold and some turn on each other. Uma, a young woman who has learned the power of stories, suggests they sit together and share one amazing thing about their lives, something perhaps they have never shared before. The stories range from childhood abuse and loss to unrequited love and help give depth and understanding to each character who, until now, have mostly been viewed through the lens of stereotype and bias (for example, Cameron’s black skin makes some characters fearful of him being violent, and Tariq’s unkempt beard make others think he is a terrorist).
Divakaruni’s writing is fluid and at times beautiful – especially during the story-telling sections of the book.
“When had it happened? Looking back, I could not point to one special time and say, There! That’s what is amazing. We can change completely and not recognize it. We think terrible events have made us into stone. But love slips in like a chisel – and suddenly it is an ax, breaking us into pieces from the inside.” – from One Amazing Thing, page 90 –
As the characters reveal their backgrounds through one event in their life, the reader gains a deeper understanding of what motivates, frightens, and defines them. Divakaruni develops tension between the characters well, and creates a sense of urgency as the situation grows more serious and dangerous.
As a whole, however, I am not sure the novel worked as well as it could have. At times, the narrative felt like a linked collection of short stories, and the earthquake seemed like a prop in order for the characters to be revealed through story. In this way, the novel felt a bit contrived. The end of the book is abrupt and readers who like loose ends tied up will find themselves frustrated.
This is a short, quick read and I admit to being curious enough about the characters’ fates to keep reading. However, when the last page was turned, I felt oddly unsatisfied.
Divakaruni is an award winning and bestselling author of fifteen books, including the short story collection Arranged Marriage (winner of an American Book Award). Her writing is sublime and her character development admirable…and because of this, I am interested to read something else by this author even though this particular book did not totally work for me.
One Amazing Thing explores the themes of identity, class, story-telling as a way of healing, and coping in the face of crisis. Readers who like unique story set-ups and who enjoy linked short stories, might want to give this novel a try.
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Have you read and reviewed this book? Drop me a comment with a link to your review and I’ll add it here.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog.