Book review: The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd

(courtesy Hachette Australia)

One thing among the many that has always made reading reading so precious and necessary to this reviewer is its ability to warp reality in ways so escapist and pleasingly beyond belief that any troubles in the real world are temporarily kept at bay for the duration of the read.

It’s a wonderful gift that every author of a beguiling novel gives a reader in need of relief from the trials of life, which doesn’t always match hopes or expectations, and which often fails to include magic doors at the back of wardrobes or thrilling adventures hiding just out of phase, and it is why reading has come to mean so much to so many.

After all, who doesn’t want to believe there are dark secrets lurking just of reach of the noise and bluster of a city street, or mysterious creatures at home in realities barely a sliver alternate to our own?

Peng Shepherd, who previously came to attention with the emotionally rich end-of-the-world brilliance of The Book of M, is one of those impressively good writers who can take the real world and give it a twist such that the unreal comes to sit winningly cheek-by-jowl with the real, offering the giddy prospect of something alluringly different right amongst the detritus of the banal

In The Cartographers, modern day New York, which some might argue already has a heady rush of the fantastical woven into its streets full of honking taxis, soaring buildings and rushing citizens, is given a thrillingly shocking twist when Nell Young, whose life has been maps, maps, and nothing but maps since she was a little girl, is called to say that her father, the famous, or is that infamous, Dr. David Young, has been found dead at his desk in the New York Public Library (NYPL).

“‘I know, I know,’ Swann said, seeing her exasperated expression. ‘But he was right, even if he could never put it into practice himself. I just want you to be careful. To do this for the right reason.’ He looked at her. ‘This place isn’t everything.’

Nell managed a smile. He would never understand. ‘It’s not everything.’

It was more than everything.” (P. 49)

At this point, you might be thinking that it’s just another terrible crime in a big city, a place where theft and murder are, all too sadly, par for the course.

But in ways deftly inserted into the narrative, that slowly but surely and with a mystery-building brilliance that have you turning pages so much that paper cuts are a potential real issue, Shepherd makes the tragically mundane magical as Nell, estranged from her father for almost a decade after an argument at the NYPL, where they both worked, she as an intern, he as the head of the cartographical division, comes to discover that her father’s death is anything but run of the mill.

In fact, it is a seemingly very ordinary road map of New York state mass-produced in 1930 by a little-known map company, the very map that caused the falling out beyond father and daughter, that elevates Dr. Young’s terrible untimely passing from just another crime statistic to a journey into the fantastical and well beyond.

Forget wardrobes with portals or ordinary buildings rife with passages into the underworld; here is a map that offers mystery, intrigue and a conspiracy so vast and completely unbelievable, until, of course, it is not, that it has the capacity, as it turns out, to reshape Nell’s world, and everything she knows about her family and cartography.

Peng Shepherd (courtesy official author site / Photo by Rachel Crittenden)

The Cartographers isa stunningly immersive piece of writing that constructs builds a mystery worthy of the very best storytellers and which, happily because this is not always the case, offers up a payoff so excitingly expansive and meaningful that all the clues, red herrings and tantalising tidbits of detail come to make something so breathtakingly good that you will marvel at how tautly and affectingly Shepherd writes.

Her mesmerisingly good ability to weave together pedal-to-the-metal sleuthing with some poignant rumination, family, connection and regret piled upon dashed hope infuses the novel with an emotional resonance that brings the race to get the bottom of why a very ordinary-looking map could come to have such a sizeable impact alive in ways so escapist and diverting that you will be wondering what other mundane things around you carry with them the promise of enigmas wrapped within.

That is the promise and the realisation of The Cartographers which answers that great need we all have to believe there is something greater beyond paved streets, learned institutions and the dark banality of everyday life, and does in ways so emphatically out there and yet so intimately and movingly human that you will be enthrall throughout to the intricate but accessible story it weaves.

“Cartography, at its heart, was about defining one’s place in the world by creating charts and measurements. Nell had lived her life by that idea, that everything could be mapped according to references and thereby understood. But she could see now that she had been paying attention to the wrong references.

It was not a map alone that made a place real.

It was the people.” (P. 332)

Shepherd’s great gift is that she understands that we all want to believe that there is something magically unseen beyond our mortal line of vision, and we all crave the kind of adventure that could mean; even so, we are all in desperate, fundamental need for connection, belonging and love, that sense that we mean something to someone else, or many someone elses, and that without it, our lives are broken and barren in ways that can never fully be repaired.

Nell is someone like that, her estrangement from her father creating a cratering void professionally and personally so vast that it seems unfillable; that is until the shocking death of her dad, the uncovering of a bog standard ordinary map and a journey into the just-out-of-reach strangely alluring all come together to offer the kind of healing and redemption she told herself she’d never have but which she needs, like we all do, beyond measure.

What makes The Cartographers such a wonderfully compelling novel to read is the way it takes on an astounding journey, step by mysterious step, every clue a portal to more discoveries that will thrill your soul and seduce the mind, while always keeping beating, grounded humanity at its very heart – it is a rare and beautiful thing Shepherd creates in this novel, a mix of mystery and meaning that come together so perfectly and with dexterous storytelling thrill and with such insight to what it means to be human, that you will be thinking about it long after the last page is turned, wishing that perhaps you too, sans the loss of a loved one, might too find the tantalisingly unusual hiding just out of bounds of the grimly normal, and maybe, just maybe, find some healing there.

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