Modern Australian society saddens me. Kids aren’t allowed climb trees any more in case they fall and injure themselves. You can get arrested for letting your eight year old walk, alone, 200 metres to the newsagent to pick up the Sunday papers or buy himself some sweets. Gone are the joys of being a primary school kid and riding your bike, alone, to school. Is my generation one of the last where kids had freedom and the great outdoors in which to let their imaginations run wild?
A chapter or two into first-time novelist Peter Twohig’s The Cartographer and I was filled with joy. The hero, a kid whose first name we never learn, is a right little ratbag with a vivid imagination and a penchant for getting into rough and often dark places. Literally dark. This kid likes drains. Bless him.
It’s Melbourne in 1959. Our young hero is eleven, and still burdened with the guilt of his twin Tom dying the year before in an accident with monkey bars at a local playground. Our hero couldn’t lift up the bars to save his brother’s life, and part of the kid’s character is twisted up in his brother’s character as well. He thinks and acts for both of them, despite Tom no longer being around.
While exploring a house with a wild, jungle garden, the kid watches a murder take place. Now most kids these days would be scarred for life and sent straight to counselling, but our little hero’s imagination and curiosity view the deed with an almost scientific dispassion; his quick wit and quick actions save his own life when the murderer discovers the kid is watching the whole scene unfold.
And that’s where the action really starts. A little later when the kid sees another murder take place I was thinking it was all a bit too much and a bit too far-fetched; chases through drains and tunnels, through the back streets of Melbourne’s seedier suburbs, the kid outthinking and outrunning the baddies. I felt a bit overwhelmed by all the action and violence and wished the kid would spend a week living like a normal child his age, you know, sitting at home with a comic book and taking pot shots at tin cans with an air rifle. But then I kept reading, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Imagining himself as a super hero – The Cartographer, who uses his journeys to build a map of Melbourne which is subterranean as well as on top of the ground – the kid eludes the murderer. His map grows as does the danger he is in. Around him a web is slowly closing though; the kid is at the centre of something bigger than himself, through no fault of his own.
There are some superb laugh out loud bits in this book which relieve the tension. And tense it is; beautifully crafted cliffhangers keep you turning the page when you really meant to stop five chapters ago.
There is also authenticity, in the trams, the tv shows, the movies, the sweets and lollies, the very life of late 50s Australia. There’s a larrikin sense of freedom in this book and in its young hero. The kid’s family – his mother, estranged father, grandfather – are people you’ll know if you’re an Aussie of a certain age. Everyone has met people like them in their youth.
There is also harshness typical of the kid’s generation; in the murders, in the matter of fact way the kid talks about the deaths he has seen and the death of his first dog, the breakup of his parent’s marriage.
And there’s darkness; physical darkness in the drains but I think echoed in the kid’s head as he copes with murders, crooked cops, and being truly himself.
In the end, after rollicking chase after rollicking chase, after little snippets of information fed delicately to make a complete picture, I adored this book and the ‘voice’ of its hero. You can buy it at all good bookstores or find out more about it here at The Cartographer website. There are also a number of scary questions on the official website for book clubs, which make me feel completely dumb for enjoying this book as I did; as an action-packed coming of age comedy drama about a kid with a dead twin and a brilliant imagination.