Poet Devi S. Laskar’s de­but novel is a lyri­cal med­i­ta­tion on racism and a trou­bled mar­riage.


The Washington Post - - STYLE - BY ILANA MASAD

Poet and nov­el­ist Caoilinn Hughes wrote in Granta last year that “when po­ets turn their hands to prose, those hands might well be­long to Mi­das.” In­deed, there is of­ten some­thing that stands out about nov­els writ­ten by po­et­i­cally minded peo­ple: “It’s not just the sen­tences — though me-o-my, the sen­tences! — it’s the sen­si­bil­ity,” Hughes wrote. Her ex­am­ples in­cluded books by Paul Beatty, Sylvia Plath and James Bald­win, but she might as well have been de­scrib­ing “The At­las of Reds and Blues,” poet Devi S. Laskar’s de­but novel. An early para­graph sum­ma­riz­ing the main char­ac­ter — known through­out the novel as Mother — reads:

“She is a sea­soned re­porter with a hus­band who knows which kiosk sells the best crois­sants at Charles de Gaulle Air­port bet­ter than he knows where the cough medicine is stored at home. She is a mother of three small chil­dren. A woman who does not want to let go of her for­mer life, a woman who can­not stand the mind-numb­ing rep­e­ti­tion of her present.”

The novel’s plot is both straight­for­ward and com­plex: In a Ge­or­gia drive­way in 2010, Mother lies bleed­ing from a gun­shot wound to her mid­sec­tion. Below her is the fast-warm­ing con­crete of the hot day and above is a cloud­less, bright blue sky. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cers with Kevlar vests and au­to­matic weapons traipse through the house and around her prone form, shoo the neigh­bors away and trade quips with the dis­patcher. It’s a night­mar­ish scene, and one that comes to us only in frag­ments through­out the novel — but it is the place from which all other frag­ments un­fold, mov­ing back­ward and for­ward in time. “The At­las of Reds and Blues” is a quick read, in part be­cause of these short sec­tions, some only two sen­tences long. But it’s a page-turner, too, be­cause of the ur­gency of each small story, each rev­e­la­tory mem­ory.

These frag­ments are tied to­gether by sev­eral themes and time­lines. One thread fol­lows Mother’s ca­reer as a bud­ding jour­nal­ist while an­other shows Mother and her sis­ter as the chil­dren of In­dian im­mi­grants and the only brown girls at their Catholic school in the South. When a black boy named Henry ar­rives, a class­mate tells Mother that it’s nice the two of them are go­ing to­gether, be­cause “it makes sense.” An­other thread fol­lows Mother’s Mid­dle Daugh­ter as she is re­lent­lessly bul­lied at school, even­tu­ally end­ing up in the hos­pi­tal with a con­cus­sion. Yet an­other gives fas­ci­nat­ing tid­bits about the his­tory of Mat­tel’s Bar­bie and all her off­shoots, de­tail­ing her size changes, her grow­ing world of friends of different races and how a ver­sion of the doll in a wheel­chair re­quired that the Bar­bie Dream Houses be re­designed so that said wheel­chair could fit in the plas­tic man­sions’ el­e­va­tors.

Many frag­ments don’t con­trib­ute lin­ear bits of story but de­pict slice-of-life mo­ments in which Mother faces some kind of dif­fi­culty, from racism in a va­ri­ety of forms to parental ex­haus­tion to the near-con­stant ab­sence of her globe-trot­ting hus­band, whom she dubs (with­out cap­i­tal­iza­tion) her hero and her man of the hour. The scenes them­selves dic­tate whether this spousal nick­name is ironic: Some­times, the hus­band seems like a good man who makes her laugh, who pro­vides for their chil­dren, who was sup­port­ive through­out her strug­gle to get preg­nant and her first mis­car­riage; at other times, he is — and there is re­ally no other way to put this — so white, so obliv­i­ous to the fact that his wife is con­stantly fac­ing abuse from white neigh­bors, store clerks and po­lice of­fi­cers. Mother and the Mid­dle Daugh­ter keep the bul­ly­ing from him, nei­ther of them wish­ing to up­set him over the fact that racism is alive and well in the sub­ur­ban South and be­yond.

Sur­viv­ing racism in Amer­ica is a ma­jor theme through­out the book. As a child, Mother learns she’s ex­pected to be grate­ful for at­tend­ing Catholic school, for be­ing taken “off the streets — al­though she doesn’t quite un­der­stand what streets she is be­ing spared from, since she still has to walk a half mile every week­day to and from the city bus stop to school.” As an adult, buy­ing snacks for her hus­band while preg­nant, she’s told off by the cashier for eat­ing un­healthy food, and when she ex­plains it isn’t for her, she’s ac­cused of ly­ing about her mar­riage be­cause she’s not wear­ing a ring. She is trapped in this re­al­ity, and so are her daugh­ters, but her hus­band — her hero — of­ten chooses to ig­nore its ex­is­tence, cre­at­ing a sub­tle ten­sion that un­der­lies their of­ten-happy mar­riage.

In her ac­knowl­edg­ments, Laskar thanks her pub­lisher for “em­brac­ing this ex­per­i­ment.” If “The At­las of Reds and Blues” and the lyric, the­matic and struc­tural care the au­thor has lent it are an ex­per­i­ment, then it is cer­tainly a suc­cess­ful one. Ilana Masad is a book critic and fic­tion writer, the founder and host of the pod­cast “The Other Sto­ries,” and a doc­toral stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska at Lin­coln.

THE AT­LAS OF REDS AND BLUES By Devi S. Laskar Coun­ter­point. 272 pp. $25.

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