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A young cartographer story

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A brilliant young cartographer story

April 2009

When you start to tell someone about a book written by a brand new author, it is always tempting to compare the writer to another more established, well-known author.

Okay, I will immediately pigeon hole debut author Reif Larsen and say that The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet will be enjoyed by lovers of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and the quiet analytical approach to life of the 12-year-old protagonist, Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, is very like that of Mark Haddon’s central character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Although these are accurate comparisons, to be honest, they aren’t very helpful and somehow make ordinary a novel that is anything but. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like it.

It is the story of a brilliant young cartographer, who lives on a ranch in Montana with his father, a silent cowboy, his mother Dr Clare a coleopterist, his bored teenage sister, and his brother Layton who although not around, haunts the pages. T.S. has for a while been submitting maps and illustrations to a wide range of institutions and publications and now his extraordinary work has been noticed by the prestigious Smithsonain Institution, only they don’t know he is twelve. (synopsis)

The book is a thing of beauty. I read one review that described the cover as ‘dull’. Not a bit of it. Designed to resemble one of T.S.’s coloured notebooks, I think the cover is exactly right for this novel. The margins of the book are filled with delicately drawn maps, diagrams and illustrations of T.S’s journey across America to receive his Smithsonain award. Lines and arrows point to the different drawings, politely interrupting your reading flow, adding more detail to the story through an aside comment or a brief connected thought.

One of my favourite maps is entitled ‘Freight Train as Sound Sandwich’ in which T.S. pictorially uses the analogy of the different elements the make up ‘John’s Pork Chop sandwich’ to map the different layers of sounds that make up the noise of the train hurtling along the tracks (it’s on page 97 of my copy).

For me the margins make this book, which is a nice change as the margins in most books are just the vacant spaces left in the printing process.
The drawings and maps are a big distraction; they make you stop half way through a paragraph and turn the book on its side to look at a map of how you might be able to shake God’s hand, or to study how Layton pumps his fist. I like that. I like the invitation to wonder through the book. And for me, that is the purpose of the drawings.

They offer the reader a new route through a book, we don’t have to slavishly read right to left and down the page. We can follow each arrow as it appears and read the margins, or we can finish the page and go back to look at all the drawings in one go, or we can ignore them all together –although that would be a shame. Rather than a one-way street of text as in other novels, this book is an invitation to create and follow new paths.

I’ve always thought that comparing new books with old favourites makes the debut novel less new and exciting, and to do that to this book would be terrible. So yes, if you like Mark Haddon or The Catcher in the Rye, give this books a go, but there is a lot more to it than that. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is both a beautiful artefact and a great story.

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