Boys’ ow obsessiv
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