I’m fascinated by fiction about the immigrant experience. From Meera Syal’s Anita and Me and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane to Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, novels can tell you so much about the way immigrants see their adoptive country and the way it sees them, helping the rest of us understand the dislocation of not quite belonging to one culture or the other. This is the territory that Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans explores through eleven immigrants – both first and second generation – scattered across the USA, all with a connection to Tara Kumar who is visiting from Madras.
For some reason I’d thought The Americans was a set of linked short stories when I included it in my September preview but it’s firmly introduced as a novel on its jacket and that’s how it reads, although not the kind that lends itself to the usual brief recap. It roams far and wide across the US – from Chicago to Portland, Boston to L.A. – telling the stories of a widely disparate set of people. CLN is an elderly widower with whom Tara strikes up a conversation on his way to his first visit to his daughter in Chicago. Lavi is the fifteen-year-old niece – all hormones and crushes – Tara goes to Kentucky to look after while her sister takes her autistic eight-year-old son for treatment in New Jersey. Shantanu is the uncle, illegally in the US and entangled in the criminal web of his boss, who Tara hopes to visit. Akhil is the misfit whose worried parents have asked Tara to check on while Madhulika is the friend in Portland whose arranged marriage is floundering. These are a few of the characters in Viraraghavan’s wide-ranging novel, each of whom has a story to tell – some run-of-the-mill, others not so – all linked back to Tara who, of course, has her own tale. The novel is set in 2005, sufficiently distant from 9/11 for its full effects to be felt on anyone with a brown skin, many of whom find themselves regarded with even more suspicion than they did before.
With so many interwoven narrative strands, each busy with characters, there’s a danger that The Americans might have run away with itself but Viraraghavan manages to keep it all under control, neatly linking each strand back to Tara’s. Only Akhil’s seemed a little strained perhaps because it’s both more dramatic and tangential than most of the others. Viraraghavan explores a wide range of experience, from Tara’s wealthy sister who employs both a housekeeper and a cleaner, to Shantanu, who risks everything despite his expired visa to protect a trafficked young woman. Instances of casual racism, both directed at the Indian characters and by them at others, are all delivered convincingly and with a light touch. While the typescript book reports scattered through the narratives jarred a little, they’re neatly tied in to Tara’s own story at the end of the novel. Well worth reading, although I suspect that it won’t get the attention it deserves. And well done HarperCollins for publishing it straight into affordable paperback.