Maps of the Invisible World

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Map of the Invisible World, Tash Aw, book reviewIn Indonesia sometime in the late 1940s or maybe the 1950s, two young boys are abandoned by their mother and sent to an orphanage. The elder brother, Johan, is adopted by a wealthy Malaysian couple and grows up with adoptive siblings and a life of privilege. The younger boy, Adam, goes to live with a Dutch artist, Karl, a man so ashamed of his Dutch heritage that he forbids Adam to speak Dutch.

As the book Map of the Invisible World opens, Adam finds himself alone again after Karl is taken away by soldiers, anxious to rid the country of old ‘imperialists’. Adam leaves his isolated island to go looking for Margaret, a woman about whom he knows nothing but he has assumed she knows Karl because he has seen in a photograph of them both. Quite how he found her is not clear – but then how anyone found anyone else is a puzzle in this book.

American-born Margaret is a university lecturer in Jakarta, a woman who has bounced around the world and no longer considers herself to be from anywhere in particular. Margaret has ‘connections’ to the American secret services and shares an office at the university with a young revolutionary called Din. The university is coming down around her ears as students riot and protest against the government. When Adam turns up on Margaret’s doorstep, he reminds her of a time when she was young and in love and together they have to try to track down Karl. Meanwhile Adam is soon led astray by Din and his revolutionary friends and Margaret’s search for Karl becomes a search for both Karl and Adam.

It took me a long time to get through Tash Aw’s Map of the Invisible World because I struggled to care or to be very interested in the novel. It’s a very tricky read because it’s set in a time and place that few of us know much about though I doubt that even if I did know lots about 20th Century Indonesia, I’d still have been pretty confused – and dare I say it bored – by this story. The plot jumps about all over the place, leaping between times, places and characters so fast that it leaves the reader’s head spinning just trying to keep up with it. I like a complex story but I found this one just a bit too muddled – not so much complex as just plain old confused.

“I like a complex story but I found this one just a bit too muddled…”

Map of the Invisible World lacks a central character and we’re left wondering who we should be gunning for, where our sympathies should lie and who we should care about. Many of the characters are underdeveloped and others poorly drawn. Take Margaret – she seems to care deeply about her students but as time passes they turn against her and she against them. She rejects her American heritage but turns to the devious ‘Bob’ who will only help her to track down Karl if she gets involved in negotiations with the president. It was all just too odd and contrived.

Map of the Invisible World also has some plot lines that really don’t seem to be going anywhere – as if the author got a bit bored or hurried to finish the book. A good editor could probably have cut huge chunks out without the reader missing them or the book being any the poorer. The entire sub-plot about brother Johan is never really resolved and could easily have been cut completely without leaving the story any the poorer. Adam is encouraged to get involved in an act of terrorism – seemingly without much consequence or come back. People love each other in almost lazy and careless ways and leave or lose each other just as casually. The plot dabbles in a bit of espionage but without being very convincing and when those who were lost are found again, it’s by methods that seem unconvincing and have nothing to do with the processes which were supposed to help find them.

I have another of Tash Aw’s books on my shelf – the Costa first novel prize wining Harmony Silk Factory. After my disappointment with Map of the Invisible World I’m not sure I can face trying again.

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Maps of the Invisible World
by Tash Aw

2 Comments on "Maps of the Invisible World"

  1. JoV
    04/10/2011 at 21:46 Permalink

    You may be disappointed with Harmony Silk Factory. I read both you mentioned and although Silk Factory is a little better I still think there is some hit and miss going on in there. I don’t want to spoil it for you but try it out.

  2. koshkha
    05/10/2011 at 21:59 Permalink

    Thanks Jo – I’ll shuffle that one down the pile again.

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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