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 guns 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.
By Devi S. Laskar
Counterpoint. 272 pp. $25.