Book Review: The Cartography of Others, by Catherine McNamara

Cartography – the study and production of maps – is, by definition, a pioneering art. Charting the unknown is a job for the explorer; those not trapped by familiarity. As difficult as geographic mapping is, and traversing jungles is no small feat, the human psyche is arguably more treacherous territory. We live it together and live it alone, viewing the world differently, as one might see mountains in different hues from disparate places.

Catherine McNamara’s The Cartography of Others may take us to exotic locations but it’s no frilly “summer read” to be grabbed at the airport for Boonsian entertainment by the swimming pool. The “cartography” here is not primarily geographic. The backdrops are real and effectively drawn but it is in charting the contours of the human condition that McNamara succeeds with skilful interpretation.

This collection displays an incredibly descriptive art in conveying the tenuous tapestries of the soul. We become human through our interpersonal relationships with other human beings. The characters convey this longing for connection. Their emotions and lusts are so finely conveyed that the reader wishes the story would go on. Yet like all good things, they end, and the author knows how to leave a reader wanting more.

The first story in the collection, “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage”, is a curious piece of observational art. Not much transpires in the linear narrational sense but it’s clear why McNamara chose to open the collection with this and it shows how she can do much with ostensibly little. A musician is on a summer boat trip around Corsica, where staff must adhere to his pretentious requirements. The story reveals how confusion and longing can erupt in apparent serenity.

The rich musician who books the cruise oozes the qualmish stench of the rich but boastful nobody. His strange relationship with a demanding Japanese wife is told in delicate brushstrokes. The geographic background is equally descriptive and the reader is drenched in a deep and exotic realism. “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage” leaves the reader wondering if they’ve just spent five minutes glancing at abstract expressionism in a silent gallery somewhere in time.

McNamara continues to paint a myriad of human confusions and catastrophes in a delicate yet confident language, often making the physical background, however eventful, at times almost irrelevant. What matters in the cartography of others is not what others do but who they are.

Most of the story titles could easily have been Joy Division song titles, but not “Magaly Park”, where a coastal town is knocked out of balance by a homicide. Amid the sea breeze and urban familiarity is a palpable sense of societal fracture. Residents’ attempts at communication are stilted by a ubiquitous suspicious of human interaction.

The descriptions of the seaside with its gulls and lapping waves are still lush in spite of the chaos of crime. The story develops from an assumed crime story into a satisfying insight of the protagonist’s longing for the love of another woman. It ends with a wonderful escape into a rocky landscape that has metaphorical allusions of lesbian love.

Such observational interpretation of the human psyche demands strong, cutting prose and at times the light touch of a feather. McNamara is an expert at conveying gravitas with the briefest of sentences and somehow makes remote feelings seem emphatically our own.

With characters that are stunningly unique yet refreshingly accessible, the stories all seem to have a kernel of longing for love or lust. In a broader sense all want connection: the touch of a hand; the voice of a lost lover. Further stories analyse deeply the agony in watching a loved one suffer persistent domestic abuse at the hands of their spouse. Another piece watches a realisation unfold wherein cancer and disability have changed a relationship forever. We leave each story with a sense that however remote the feeling or improbably the odds, we’re never far away from pain or happiness in our own existence.

Today’s globalist and technological era perpetuates the idea of fewer divisions and less conflict. McNamara has a proclivity in taking readers to the wrong side of town, where dialogue is often snared by cultural and societal division. She seems not to consider our differences so easily erased. The concept of “foreign” is impressed as a real entity in a seemingly shrinking world.

The Cartography of Others charts a landscape of pain and hope that emblazons the strength and fragility of the human spirit. It is an atlas of distances and bridges between us. That readers may wish some of these tales developed into novels should come as encouragement to the author.

The Cartography of Others is out now from Unbound.

Book Review: The White City, by Roma Tearne

Since the publication of her Costa-shortlisted debut, Mosquito, Roma Tearne has earned a devoted following for her lyrical prose interspersed with sharp societal analysis. A Sri Lankan-born novelist now living in Britain, Tearne has also found success with Brixton Beach and The Swimmer. Her novels consistently illuminate the cracks in society and the humanity that bridges them.

That Tearne is also an artist is no surprise. Painters feature often in her novels and her writing exhibits a nuanced pictorial strength. In this latest novel, The White City, Tearne adopts a perennial blizzard as a white canvas on which she paints a story of familial breakdown, lost love, and political upheaval.

This – her seventh book – sees London as the chilled, limping victim of climate change. Scores die daily in the frozen wasteland of a decades-long winter and corpses lie encased only in ice. Lines of frozen cars stand long-abandoned. The capital – wrought by the elements – nears a hypothermic death-rattle.

This frozen era faces an equally terrifying transformation in its political climate. A totalitarian regime assumes power in Britain; dissidents soon become the ‘disappeared’, and torture is common currency. Injustice and starvation is a daily reality but – true to British endurance – life goes on.

Hera is the daughter of immigrants and an aspiring artist. A rational young woman, she wonders in annoyance how the medieval beliefs of her parents have survived beyond modernity. Her family – long dysfunctional and languished by civil unrest – are thrown into a turmoil that tests fragile bonds. Hera’s brother, Aslam, is arrested on terrorism charges. Such are laws in new fascist Britain that the family are told little about his fate. Rumours say he may be in a concentration camp known for Hitlerian brutality.

Hera’s mother is stupefied by the shock of Aslam’s arrest. Her husband is compulsive in prayer and futile in action. It falls on a close uncle to try and piece together Aslam’s fate and to try and bring home his nephew.

Hera’s solace throughout this chilling nightmare is her astronomer lover, Raphael, a scarred survivor of the Chile’s former Pinochet regime. Raphael’s victimhood at the hands of one dictator provides a historical parallel for the new wave of authoritarianism under which this new Britain is suffering.

The story of Aslam’s fate and the family’s fight to save him is punctuated by Hera’s memories of time spent with Raphael. Her internal dialogues retell memories of time with this enigmatic older doctor, and her longing to see him again.

Persistent winter as a setting has little functional value in this novel; most of what transpires could have happened in normal weather. But the cold, snow, and rain provide a unique aesthetic backdrop. It is in description of the climate, not its utility, where Tearne’s writing shines. The rationalities of such a cold decades-long spell don’t always make sense. In a city where corpses freeze in the streets and the homeless are frying rats for food, it’s odd that the bus and train services still operate. Perhaps I underestimate the robust spirit that imbues the staff at Transport for London depots across the city.

A closer proof-read was in order as the narrative has minor inconsistencies but these small errors do not detract from what is an erudite and original novel.

Most surprising is the amount of well-written suspense. As Hera ventures deeper into the truth behind the corrupt ‘system’ and her own fragile identity, the plot takes unexpected yet satisfying turns. Tearne is a master of the chased-and-hunted dramaturgy.

Although at times rough at the edges, The White City is a fresh, poetic, and gripping story of love and endurance.

The White City is published by Aardvark Bureau.

Novel: Dancing to the Flute by Manisha Jolie Amin

DancingIntoTheFluteIf The Alchemist or The Kite Runner haven’t satisfied your curiosity on the spiritual development of wandering boys, Manisha Jolie Amin’s début novel should be your next read. Dancing to the Flute is an exercise in palliative care to a dying theme. I can’t help but feel I’ve read this novel before – this sense of deja vu most probably the result of a high number of books out there concerned with debunking materialism through prophetic journeys in the wilderness.

Set in India, Dancing to the Flute is the story of Kalu, an orphan, and his mission to find meaning in his own life. Kalu, seeking a doctor for an apparent case of athlete’s foot, instead has his wound healed by a Vedic guru. The price for this medical treatment is an opportunity to learn how to play the flute and receive teaching in the meaning of life – a bargain if ever there was one. There is little evidence that Kalu wants to go on a transcendental trek through no-man’s-land, but nevertheless he buys a flute and gets on with the job in earnest.

Secondary characters here are far more compelling than the boy at the centre of the novel, if indeed he is at the centre of the plot at all. Kalu, as is often the case with novels where the protagonist hasn’t yet found a voice, is defined by those he meets. Mercifully for the reader, Amin succeeds in skilfully and quickly establishing characters that fill the vacuous personality of her main man. The challenge in having a lead character who is searching for an identity is that everyone he meets is more interesting than he.

The novel’s one saving grace is the beauty of its writing. Amin’s talent for evocative prose is undeniable – occasionally overwritten, sometimes at the expense of substance – but resplendent nonetheless. In terms of highly structured narrative: I’d have welcomed one. Yet Amin’s vivid descriptive ability puts the reader at the heart of Indian culture in a way that makes us content just to be there.

Amin uses very many Indian words and phrases, helpfully including a glossary for the English reader, but having to find this word-list two or three times a page is a little tiring. (I hope, on a practical note, that any second printing makes the glossary more easily locatable.) That being said, the more one reads the heavy Indian vocabulary, the less one needs the glossary, in a way there’s a worthwhile lesson in introductory Hindi here.

Dancing to the Flute wanders around as much as the boy in the story, but it’s an enjoyable ramble. There are passages that would stand up to Salman Rushdie in evoking India’s unquestionably vibrant heritage. Publishers were right to snap up Manisha Amin, but this first novel is an indication of potential and not her Magnus Opus.