There’s nothing like a book that feels utterly fresh. Regardless of quality, a large number of books that cross my path seem to be a variation on a theme. Of course this is to be expected, but it does mean that when we stumble across a book loaded with originality- and brilliantly executed- it feels like a miracle. Peter Twohig’s debut The Cartographer is one of these books and the discovery is made even sweeter by its distinctly Australian flavour.
Did I mention Australian? Set in rough-as-guts Richmond, Melbourne in 1959, The Cartographer is overflowing with slang. The language makes the book a little difficult in parts, but it does work to firmly establish and maintain a strong sense of place, where the cops are as dirty as the criminals and ‘if you didn’t have a murder every five minutes or so, the silence started to get on your nerves’.
So when our plucky 11 year old narrator stumbles across a murder in progress when all he really meant to do was run away, it’s harrowing but not surprising. Such drama only adds to his burden- his twin brother recently died and his father shot through not long after.
To evade the murderer and attempt to make sense of an immensely confusing world, our hero begins to explore the streets of Melbourne, including its grimy underground tunnels. He maps everything he uncovers and marks the spots where unsavoury events have unfolded. From this, his alter-ego The Cartographer is brought to life, ‘and he will be the saviour of my people. Best of all, I would be practically indestructible’. But superhero or not, our narrator may not be able to extricate himself from the strange web of secrets and betrayals that link his adventures together, and which will bring him face to face with the killer once more.
The Cartographer requires a generous suspension of disbelief. In the course of his rapidly expanding mapping project, our hero gets tangled up in exploits that are wildly improbable and the series of coincidences that fasten one event to the next are worthy of Jane Austen.
Yet experienced through the eyes of a boy who is equal parts spirit and loneliness, it works. His narration alternates between that of a regular kid and that of the superheroes he creates for himself. Along with The Cartographer, there is Railwayman who ‘is often armed with a pinch bar he found in a railway shed’ and The Outlaw, ‘who lives off… his secret underground grog supply’. Author Peter Twohig has drawn inspiration from the adventure comics he devoured as a boy and it reflects beautifully in the writing. When our hero assumes the superhero mantle for that extra bit of courage it’s gloriously delivered.
But the most wonderful element of our narrator is the earnestness with which he mixes with adults, repeats their phrases and forms his views on how the world works. It’s rich territory for a writer to mine and Twohig takes full advantage, making for some extremely funny passages: ‘If you’re one of those people who thinks that the last thing a kid who’s been chased by a homicidal maniac in an underground tunnel would do is revisit the old haunt to reminisce and do a bit more exploring, then you don’t know much about kids’. He is also richly characterised, ensconced firmly in his 1959 setting without mawkishness or cliché.
Our hero is surrounded by an assortment of background characters who add significant colour to the story, including a careworn mother and a shady grandfather with buddies who are happy to teach an eleven year old the finer points of breaking and entering.
Yet it’s the sadness, running veinlike through the body of the work, that make The Cartographer so memorable. Our hero is barely coping with the loss of his brother and is constantly wondering why he was left behind and what he’s supposed to do next. Taking on the superhero identities and the bravado of a fearless explorer is a salve for the aching loneliness he can’t shake, and a defence against an unfair world.
It’s a fragile shield though and it regularly shatters in the form of fits where ‘I’d start to shake and drop things until finally I’d sort of disappear… and wake up vomiting’. At heart this not about comedy- it’s really about a young boy trying to rebuild himself after a devastating loss.
The Cartographer will draw comparisons with others that have so beautifully captured the voice of a child including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and The Book Thief. Rather than being a pale imitation though, it is in a class of its own- smart, incredibly funny, charming and uniquely Australian. My hope is that such a strong debut marks the beginning of another fantastic year for Australian fiction.