“She hurried along the final stretch until she reached the low wooden gate in front of her house. She could hear the distant ringing of her telephone as she fumbled in the dark for her keys, running across the yard. It was not until she was almost at the front door that she realised that there was someone there, a body slumped on the steps. It was a boy, a teenager, crouched over in an almost foetal position. Margaret came up close and saw that he was asleep. Disturbed by the insistent ring of the telephone, he began to stir. He shifted uncomfortably; across his white T-shirt the word BERKELEY was emblazoned in large letters. Though closed, his eyelids trembled lightly, rapidly, as if troubled by dreams.”
The book’s language is simple, scrawled across 300 odd pages that calm you despite the disquiet of the story. It’s one of the books you will find yourself quite happy to read again a few months down the line.
Set predominantly in 1960s Indonesia, Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw is a touching story set in a very significant period in the country’s history. Strung out of different perspectives – that of a young orphan, a footloose expat, a violent communist and a lost boy—it is one of the most purging reads I’ve come across recently.
Sixteen-year-old Adam leaves his invisible island for the capital when his adopted father, Karl, a Dutch migrant, is taken away for repatriation. Here he meets Margaret, an old friend of his father’s and Din, a brilliant, but misguided young man. He also chances upon hope, loss and an enigmatic young revolutionary named Z, who saves him from the clutches of chaos. Soon, what begins as a journey to find his only family from what he calls his “new life” turns into a quest to gain closure from his “old life”, one where his older brother Johan was adopted by a wealthy couple while he watched helplessly. Set in the '60s, a troubled period of rebellion and upheaval in Indonesia, we travel through a time that teaches us about Surkarno, the New Order, Dutch colonialists and writers and painters who found their inspiration in the Invisible World of the nation’s scattered islands.
The book deals with some very complex issues but manages to keep you gripped with a story woven across time, space and missed opportunities. The characters, fluid in thought are lost and quite happily so. There are times when you get a little, ok very, teary eyed, especially when the scene shifts to Kuala Lampur, always at night, to get a glimpse of Johan – lost, guilt ridden and so full of remorse. Adam is a character you want to cherish but it’s Johan you really want to embrace.
What I love about the book is how everything feels like a memory lost in a different dimension despite its strong historic setting. I haven't read Aw's first book, The Harmony Silk Factory, but I'm definitely going to get my hands on it soon. He does not weave poetry with his words, he incites it within your senses. You can actually feel the heat in Jakarta burning the back of your neck. You can smell the sea on the island where Adam lived with Karl. You can sense the darkness in Kuala Lamur's skyline despite the sprinkles of city lights There’s beauty and terrible sadness in this book as it takes you to a time and place you might have only ever thought of as an exotic destination south east of the sun. A keeper, no doubt, and perfect to gift to a friend who is also lost, and quite happily so.
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