The Power of Story

#12: One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a novel blending the concept of The Canterbury Tales with a modern Lost-like setting.  Nine people find themselves in the basement visa office of the Indian consultate in a city closely resembling, but never identified as, San Francisco.  A large scale earthquake hits and the group is bound by their apparently futile plight.  A leader is assumed in Cameron Grant, a survival savvy African American Vietnam veteran.  As he keeps the group alive physically, Uma, a graduate student at the consulate to apply for a visa in order to visit her parents in India, motivates her companions spiritually by suggesting they each tell the story of “one amazing thing” that has occured in their lives.

Their stories differ in theme, but each succeeds in making a final confession of or reconciliation with an experience that has been the defining event of his or her life.  A Chinese grandmother offers a revealing tale of her past; an upper middle class White couple offer stories that explain their disintegrating marriage; the consulate’s two employees explain the experiences in their lives that have led to what appears to be an impending love affair; the granddaughter explains the story of her unlikely musical talent; a Muslim American details the difficult relationship with his home country since 9/11; Cameron, the veteran, attempts to atone for the abortion he asked his high school girlfriend to have; and lastly, Uma herself offers her final understanding of love.

The most surprising characteristic of the stories is the clarity with which they are relayed.  In my opinion, this clarity is not a narrative flaw, but an allusion to the power that storytelling has on the psyche.  This simple act has the potential to cleanse the spirit and can offer the teller peace.

As the novel comes to a close, a reluctant Uma tells her story.  The primary point of her story is to reveal her conclusion that in order to love, one must be prepared to go into the experience without abandon, offering the depths of one’s heart to her partner.  A secondary point is revealed at the story’s end: Uma tells Jeri, an acquaintance who is dying, that a chemical explosion they misunderstood to be an aurora was, in the end, an aurora.  Uma debates with herself, trying to decide if she was right to lie, to allow Jeri to believe the illusion that in her life she saw “one amazing thing.”

Though the novel’s setting is bleak, the messages the novel provides via the stories are uplifitng.  While there are too many recognizable elements in the novel for me to find the book truly original, it is a very well written and enjoyable book that I will not soon forget.

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