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This was a book that intrigued me when I saw it in Waterstones, although had it not been on a buy 3 for 2 deal I probably wouldn't have spent the RRP price of £12.99. I think it intrigued me because it seemed like a more adult version of 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time', which I had enjoyed. Although the main character does not seem to be autistic, he makes sense of life in a similar way, but instead of using numbers it's drawing maps. Plus, the front cover of the book is amazingly attractive which always appeals to me!
The main character of the novel is T.S. Spivit, a 12 year old genius mapmaker. One of his main problems to begin with is that he lives on a ranch and his father is a 'man's man' who identifies himself with the cowboys of old. Needless to say his son's scientific mind drives him insane as he'd far prefer to have an extra hand on the ranch. Originally there had been a younger brother who preferred working with his hands to using his brain, but Layton died in a gun accident long before the book starts. So the father is left with the useless son. His mother on the other hand is a scientist, and she used to be a very good one until she threw away her career in search of an imaginary beetle that she's been searching for for coming up fifteen years. Gracie, his older sister, wants to be an actress and knows that living on the ranch is killing her dreams. And the final member of his family is Verity the dog, who is going mad. So, it's not the most normal of families, but whose is? T.S. Spivit makes sense of his family and the world by drawing beautiful, meticulous maps which he keeps in colour coded notebooks according to their subjects; maps of the country-side, maps of his family's behaviour, maps of animals, maps of mechanical objects and so on.
But the story really starts when the Smithsonian Institution gets in contact with him about the drawings that he has submitted to them and other magazines. Because of the genius of these pieces he has won a major scientific prize which comes with a teaching post, but they have no idea that he is only twelve years old. And what would any self respecting twelve year old boy do in response to such an offer? Well, probably not flee in the dead of the night and illegally ride the freight trains for two thousand miles to reach Washington D.C.
A large amount of the novel is therefore spent describing T.S's journey on the freight trains and explaining how he kept himself occupied during the journey. This is partially by drawing more of his detailed maps to keep track of the surrounding area, the route they have been taking and the objects in the carriage. Another way in which he seems to amuse himself is by talking to inanimate objects...which oddly enough appear to talk back and so he can have full conversations with these random things. But during the periods of time in which he is not having a conversation with a mountain or gun, most of his time is spent reading his mother's biography of his great-grandmother. This means that much of the second section of the novel is taken up by the biography of someone who doesn't play a real role in the novel other than being a scientist who died 150 years ago.
This is what truly attracted me to the novel in the first place, as the book itself is huge but the amount of text per page is average and it has massive margins. And in these margins throughout the book are some of the intricate drawings of maps, people, equipment and rooms which T.S. Spivit has drawn either earlier in his life or during the journey. These serve to illustrate the book and whatever point T.S may be making at the time, and it also makes it stand out from other books on the shelves of the store. It looks fantastic, but I'm not sure whether this is a good enough reason to buy the book as overall it is a mediocre novel. However, considering I had already bought the book the illustrations do make it far more interesting and appealing. They are also very well done and often the comments which are written to go with them have the few aspects of humour in the novel.
Personally, this was a disappointment. The storyline wasn't bad, but is was by no means good; if anything it often seemed weak. It didn't seem to go anywhere. It is a good premise but wasn't fulfilled to its full potential. I thoroughly enjoyed the first section, and kind of enjoyed the third section, but the middle was disappointing and I found that I was struggling to read it without getting bored out of my brains. Events in this section which could have proven interesting and even gripping were glossed over, leaving it a rather boring account of a boy riding some trains!
I have several other issues with the novel, and one of them is what I'd call a spiced potato, or otherwise noted to normal people as something which goes beyond the suspension of disbelief. Said phrase came from when my boyfriend was reading a book set in King Arthur's time period and threw the book across the room when he read that the peasants were eating spiced potatoes. Spices? Potatoes? Anyone else see a problem!? But anyhow, back to this novels spiced potato. T.S. Spivit is without a shadow of a doubt a scientific genius almost to the point of autism, but the issue is that he shows no signs of autism. The author has given him a wide ranged vocabulary, the ability to interact well with other people and particularly other adults, and an intelligence in many other areas. He is not a realist character because he is too well rounded, which in normal cases would be a good thing but because he is so brilliant in such a specific area there must be a fault somewhere to find. Because there isn't one it leaves him seeming two dimensional and unbelievable. In addition the author has put a very adult thought process into what is primarily the thoughts of a child, which becomes annoying as you tend to forget the age of the character until the book actively reminds you.
Another issue is that none of the other characters are given full characters and personalities. There is very little expansion of any of them except possibly the father of T.S. Spivit whom T.S is constantly trying to psycho-analyse to find some way to be something other than the second rate son. But even his father isn't given any prime time until the very end of the novel. All you know about his mother is that she is a scientist, somewhat obsessive, on a search for a mythical beetle and even her own son calls her Dr. Claire. Dr. Yorn is another scientist and is portrayed as T.S's role model and mentor but again you know very little about him and he very rarely actually appears. And if that's bad then it's even worse with Gracie and his dog as they are barely given a mention after their introduction; more is said about the dead brother than about the living sister. This focus on T.S. without a full exploration of his family and friends also makes the novel seem two dimensional and rather dry.
As a final complaint, I'd say that the biography of T.S.'s great-grandmother was most definitely an unorthodox and possibly brave addition to the novel, but it didn't work very well. This was probably because it seemed to be used as a space filler for when the author ran out of things to say. It could have worked if it was much shorter and less time consuming, but because it takes up such a large chuck of the novel (as in most of the second section) it just seemed unnecessary. The only use it has is to shed a small amount of light on his mothers psychology, but it's not even good at doing that. It was, to give credit, interesting reading but all the way through it I couldn't help wondering why I was reading it and what the point was. I still haven't figured this out yet.
So, in total what is my view? Well if you are willing to spend £12.99 for the pictures go ahead and buy it, as the illustrations are extraordinary. But if you are buying it for a gripping story, don't bother - or at least skip the middle section and skim the end section until the last twenty or so pages. It really does come across as a two dimensional story, and I personally believe that if there had been less of the going no-where plot and more character padding and psychology this could have been a fantastic book. Unfortunately, it isn't.
Price: £4.43 on Amazon
Publisher: # Publisher: Harvill Secker; Airport / Ireland / Export e. edition (4 Jun 2009)