Catherine McNamara’s short story collection The Cartography of Others is a work of dazzling confidence. It’s a carnival of different cultures and writing styles, resounding with brilliant images that linger long after reading, and it should mark McNamara out as a major literary talent.
The collection opens with “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage”, a story that centres around a boat-owning couple and the tourists they invite to stay with them. It’s initially a little dizzying, not least because of the sweep of nationalities on the boat – the man in the couple is Belgian, his wife Japanese; the narrator’s partner used to play in a band in Marseille and has handed a translated Houellebecq novel to his guest – but within a couple of pages it settles down into a more comfortable rhythm. It’s a gauzy, intriguingly voyeuristic opener to the collection, the narrator living vicariously through her guests, and it ends with some striking and strange symbolism. Perhaps it’s not the best story in The Cartography of Others, but it’s nevertheless sophisticated, multi-layered and atmospheric, and there’s a lot to love in it.
“The Wild Beasts of the Earth will Adore Him” is more accessible, telling the story of Solomon, an office worker who’s the lynchpin of everything around him. He’s a terrific character: straight-backed in his seat, with a polio limp and a photo of his recently-deceased son on the noticeboard, and he looks “congenial, long-suffering”. His story is carefully and unexpectedly paralleled by that of Meredith, one of the narrator’s colleagues, and her two ageing Labradors. To say more would be to give away too much, but it’s enough to say that McNamara skilfully interweaves the two narratives to bring about a forceful, haunting climax. And as with the first story, there’s not only a careful controlled structure but also numerous extremely vivid descriptions, all chosen for maximum impact.
Each story here is unpredictable, stylistically and thematically, but there’s not a bad one among them. In particular, McNamara is a brilliant observer of relationships. “Three Days in Hong Kong” takes the hectoring second person favoured by David Peace and applies it to a story of one woman’s disastrous dirty weekend. The choice of perspective brilliantly captures the narrator’s feeling of dehumanisation, and there’s some beautifully cinematic images, such as the woman standing naked at her hotel window while her lover, at dinner with his wife in a restaurant far below, talks filth to her on his mobile. “Magaly Park” is equally effective, feeling like an homage to Marguerite Durras’s classic novel “The Lover”, although it manages to find its own angle by shifting the perspective to the man, a discomforting choice that certainly pays off.
McNamara also shows herself to be a master of symbolism. “Return from Salt Pond”, which starts with Kenneth’s windscreen being shattered by some thugs, is tightly structured around a night on which things both literal and metaphorical are taken from you. “Love and Death and Cell Division” takes the two meanings of cell division – relating to both pregnancy and cancer – and carefully weaves a tale of Effie’s contempt for her nephew around them. And in both “The Bamboo Furnace” and “The Cliffs of Bandiagara” there are skilful uses of wounds to represent inner corruption. These symbols are always interwoven gently, with an admirable lightness of touch, but they’d certainly make any one of these stories worth revisiting.
All that said, the greatest strengths of this collection are in the quality of Catherine McNamara’s writing, which is frequently jaw-dropping. Listen to this, from “Yann at Night”:
“His father stepped around into cones of light, so that Yann could only see his crumpled shirt and his face in brown lowered ridges. There was no sound. His father recoiled, then turned to the roadside, following something that dragged itself into the woods. Yann saw a blur of red and white. His father crouched down by the front of the car and Yann thought back to the island where they had stayed in a warm house that he hadn’t wanted to leave… Anita had bought a basket of blood-red sea urchins and they watched her skin them alive and slice up the pulp for spaghetti.”
There’s a control to McNamara’s writing, a cinematic quality and an extraordinary vividness that’s shot through every story in here. I’d argue that the very best writing often makes the world strange and unfamiliar, causes you to see in again through fresh eyes. And, whether it’s in the passage above, that horror of being with a father you don’t trust in a traumatic situation, or the description of somebody’s IVF egg donation as “a tiny galaxy of consequences”, Catherine McNamara makes the world strange and vibrant. That’s what makes her a remarkable writer, and this a remarkable collection.
The Cartography of Others was published by Unbound, a crowdfunding organisation that allows people to pledge money to particular, curated projects which Unbound will publish if the donation threshold is met. It’s a really exciting initiative, and one that’s well worth looking into here.
You can buy The Cartography of Others on Kindle for £3.99 here, although the cover is so beautiful that you may want to spring for the paperback. You can also follow Catherine McNamara on Twitter here.
Thanks to Catherine for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes
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