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In 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 is a young adult and finds himself alone again after his 'father' 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 her with Karl in an old photograph. 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 system 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 suspect 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.
'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 explored. 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 winning 'Harmony Silk Factory'. After my disappointment with 'Map of the Invisible World' I'm not sure I can face trying again.