The Cartographer by Peter Twohig
Peter Twohig’s Melbourne is a sinister city of laneways, hideouts, secrets, and deserted tram yards crammed with adventure. From his protagonist’s home in 1950s Richmond, to South Melbourne, Windsor, Moonee Valley and Caulfield, he harnesses the city’s pulsating energy and turns it from mere setting into main character. His grasp of the place is beyond spectacular. Our journey comes via the 11-year-old narrator (enigmatically known to the reader as ‘T’). He takes us the back way, through the drainage system and the underground railway, illegally riding trams and stumbling upon grenades left over from the war.
Like young Harriet in Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and nine-year-old Oskar in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, our narrator is on a quest, having suffered the death of a close family member (his twin brother Tom). But unlike the characters in those novels, whose missions are explicit (however misguided), our boy’s only purpose is to map his surroundings. Along the way, he stumbles upon adventure after adventure, which, rather unbelievably, all connect. We’re constantly left with the frustrating feeling that we’re looking through the eyes of an unreliable witness. First he’s scared of dogs, then he loves them. Names of people and streets subtly change (Kipling Lane becomes Kipling Street, Mollie becomes Molly.) It’s a comment on all first-person narratives and the trust we as readers must place in them.
We’re left to try to ponder this while the novel moves at a pace that would prompt smart loss of driver’s licence, were it a car. The tone is almost manic and becomes exhausting after a time. This is perhaps the point, as the Cartographer (the narrator’s superhero alter-ego) attempts to suppress his guilt and grief. In places, Twohig’s writing is overdone and clichéd, but the depth of plot saves it. It’s a fascinating debut that leaves the reader with myriad questions to muse upon, long after the last page is turned.
Amy Roil blogs as The Book Witch