Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Too Close to Home
I have lived in the Bay Area long enough to have experienced an earthquake – as have most of my friends. But I don’t know anyone who has been trapped by one. What would that feel like?
One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a fictional account of 9 people trapped by an earthquake in the Indian Consulate in San Francisco. The 9 include employees and would-be travelers, Indians and non-Indians, “…like a mini UN summit in here” as one of them thinks. Sprinkled throughout are references to well-known places like Van Ness Ave giving it an all-too-familiar feel. Although no mention is made of its location, the actual Indian consulate in San Francisco is located in just 2 blocks from where I lived for 16 years – and lived at the time of the 1989 earthquake: definitely a vulnerable earthquake area.
After the quake, no rescue efforts seem to be forthcoming, the water is rising and the smell of gas is getting stronger. In an effort to stave off the rising hysteria and ill-tempers, Uma, one of the trapped and a student currently reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (a nice touch by the author), suggests that “We can each tell an important story from our lives.” That sets up the structure of the rest of the novel as each person tells about one amazing thing in his or her life. The stories are by turns hopeful, sad, poignant and in some cases unresolved. If I were reading it again, I would take notes because 9 is too many for me to hold in memory. I also think on second reading I would take more time to reflect on the individual experiences.
This book reminded me in some ways of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto only this time the hostage-taker is Mother Nature. We’ve certainly had earthquakes in the headlines of late including ones in Haiti and China. The next time that I read of rescue attempts I will have a completely different feel for the experience of the survivors and for what it might have been like in the aftermath for those waiting successfully or otherwise to be rescued.
Read an excerpt from Chapter 1 and check out her website.