A diverse group trapped in the aftermath of a disaster shares tales of love, loss and desire.
Divakaruni’s latest (The Palace of Illusions, 2008, etc.) harkens back to her earlier collections of short stories more than it coalesces as a convincing novel. Seven visa applicants wait for the services of two bureaucrats in the basement-level visa office of an Indian consulate somewhere in America. “It was not uncommon, in this city, to find persons of different races thrown together,” Divakaruni writes. “Still, Uma thought, it was like a mini UN summit in here. Whatever were all these people planning to do in India?” Suddenly, a massive earthquake strikes, trapping them in the dark and forcing them to confront each other. An angry young man named Tariq Husein seethes as Cameron Grant, an African-American veteran, assumes leadership of the trapped group. Mr. Pritchett, who had hoped a trip to India would lift his wife’s depression, endangers them all by trying to light a cigarette despite a gas leak. Malathi, a clerk at the consulate, stands up to him when he takes away Mrs. Pritchett’s medication. Jiang, an elderly Chinese woman injured in the quake, tries to protect her granddaughter Lily. In the midst of their ordeal, Uma, a grad student first glimpsed reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” comes up with the idea of having each person relate an incident from his or her life. “Everyone has a story,” she says. “I don’t believe anyone can go through life without encountering at least one amazing thing.” The individual tales are engaging, but the mechanical setup and the lack of resolution in the primary narrative make it difficult to fully embrace all that follows.
Compassionate stories, many of them inspired, suspended in half of a novel.