Laskar eschews the poet’s pen in lieu of stripped down, bare prose. This is a fitting style to illustrate that there is nothing pretty or poetic about lying helpless on your driveway at the mercy of joking, trigger-happy cops while indifferent neighbors go about their day. When Laskar does indulge in linguistic pyrotechnics, the effects are all the more striking and often reference the colors in the book’s title. “On the driveway her thirst is primitive: She wants to taste the blue palette of cold water, she wants to dispel the rancid ketchup taste blooming in her mouth.”
Laskar has a fine eye for capturing the loneliness and heart break of her characters, even as they desperately try to assimilate. Despite Mother’s attempts to fit in, she is constantly asked where she is from. It is to Laskar’s credit that she does not shy away from the ugliness of identity politics in an America where being born here is never enough to be considered American, or the debilitating mental health costs of residing in hostile neighborhoods. Laskar goes a step further to show that emotional assaults come not only from strangers but also from loved ones. At one point, after lightening strikes their house and they can’t shut their garage door, the neighbors duct tape yet another nasty letter to their front door. Mother wants to sue, but Hero says softly, “We have to be nice … We agreed to follow their rules when we moved here.”
Many of the most riveting scenes in “The Atlas of Reds and Blues” are the racial and gender violations that take place in what should be safe places such as a grocery store, a laundromat, a doctor’s clinic, the school and the newspaper office where Mother worked as a journalist. It is devastating to watch the daughters come to terms with the America they live in. “‘Just think of it as a game,’ (Mother) tells the Middle Daughter, who is crying in the backseat, because she wasn’t invited to her classmate’s birthday party. Everyone else came to school on Monday wearing the tie-dye T-shirt they’d made over the weekend. ‘What game is that? Pick on the girl who looks different?’”
The most affecting parts of this novel are devoted to Greta, the abused German Shepherd Mother adopts. We see Greta lose her puppies, Greta as a middle-aged companion, Greta as elderly and ill Greta, all culminating in memories of Greta’s ghost flooding Mother as she lies defenseless on her driveway. It is in fact Greta’s one act of ferociousness that will allow Mother the courage for her own rebellion.
“The Atlas of Reds and Blues” provides no easy answers. It does, however, delve deeply into the plight of ordinary people who do nothing to invite hate and yet get caught in hatred’s web, only to find disentanglement almost impossible. Laskar’s fine and moving novel is a step toward her own release, and with it she simultaneously offers readers a way out, too.
‘The Atlas of Reds and Blues’
by Devi S. Laskar
272 pages, $25
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