Boys’ ow ob­ses­siv

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed Wright

AN un­named 11-year-old boy, griev­ing for his dead twin, finds so­lace in trac­ing the streets of post-world War II in­ner ur­ban Melbourne. As he ex­plores this world, he ob­ses­sively makes a per­sonal map of his en­vi­rons, and gleans courage from his rein­ven­tion of him­self in the guise of var­i­ous su­per­heroes. This courage is nec­es­sary as his ad­ven­tures draw him into a se­ries of dan­ger­ous predica­ments from which he will be lucky to emerge un­scathed.

This is the premise of Peter Twohig’s in­trigu­ing de­but novel The Car­tog­ra­pher. Af­ter a ca­reer as a natur­opath and home­opath, Twohig wrote the first draft of his novel dur­ing Nanow­rimo, aka Na­tional Novel Writ­ing Month, an event held (to­gether with the grow­ing of mous­taches) ev­ery Novem­ber. He wrote 3500 words, or a chap­ter a day, and this ra­pid­ity of com­po­si­tion car­ries through to the final prod­uct — for good and for bad.

The Car­tog­ra­pher has an in­fec­tious en­ergy. It’s an ex­pan­sive rather than fo­cused tale, full of asides and de­tails, a carry-all novel held to­gether by a forced but for­giv­able set of co­in­ci­dences.

Es­sen­tially, it’s pre-teen pi­caresque. Young Blayney, whose twin was Tom, and whose first name we don’t get to know, be­longs to the pan­theon of pro­tag­o­nists per­pet­u­ally on the cusp of delin­quency, whose archetype is Huck­le­berry Finn.

He gets lit­tle help to as­suage his grief and sense of guilt at hav­ing be­ing present at his dare­devil brother’s fa­tal en­counter with a set of mon­key bars. His par­ents’ grief over the death of Tom is com­pounded by the long­stand­ing rock­i­ness of their re­la­tion­ship. Only his grand­fa­ther, who is the kind of charm­ing rogue for whom the term colour­ful rac­ing iden­tity was in­vented, and is per­haps the novel’s stand­out char­ac­ter, of­fers any fa­mil­ial suc­cour.

To deal with his emo­tions young Blayney is forced to rely on his own re­sources and the vi­cis­si­tudes of a so­ci­ety where peo­ple aren’t al­ways what they pur­port to be.

Twohig has an ev­i­dent love of de­tail and does an ex­cel­lent job of build­ing a picture of a time and place that makes his pro­tag­o­nist’s car­to­graph­i­cal quest sharper on the page. It’s not a his­tor­i­cally pure vi­sion, though. The se­ries of se­cret tun­nels and rail­ways built un­der Melbourne that Blayney ex­plores are more ur­ban myth than ac­tual, but make for great ad­ven­tures and are pre­cisely the stuff of boy­ish imag­in­ings.

You will leave this novel with a strong idea of what life in post-war in­ner ur­ban Melbourne might have been like for a latchkey 11-year-old boy, with the free­dom to roam, in con­trast with in­ner ur­ban kids to­day, be­ing very much a part of this. A con­scious nostal­gia that shad­ows the story is some­times at cross pur­poses with the im­me­di­acy of Young Blayney’s first per­son nar­ra­tion, how­ever.

Twohig’s ex­pan­sive ap­proach also cre­ates scope for some lovely flights of in­ven­tion. In ad­di­tion to his car­to­graph­i­cal ob­ses­sion, for

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