Review: The Cartography of Others

‘Just now I have begun to think that if it were possible I would prefer Tai to enter me and feel her pushing against my organs. I would sooner have her within me rather than invade her’ ‘Magaly Park’, p.71.

The Cartography of Others by Catherine McNamara Unbound, 2018.

There is a savage wildness to McNamara’s The Cartography of Others, no matter the exotic location or how civilized her characters appear to be. A seething primal undercurrent that is both sensuous and violent runs through her language, generating little shocks in the reader. These shocks are delicious. There is a hidden delicatessen of shocks in these short stories, offering portions designed to keep us sated but hungry for more.

In Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage [Goodbye, My Sweet Shoreline], our lead character has ‘feet like a platypus’ (28) and once belonged to a girl band who would ‘fry pig’s blood sausages in batter’ (27), and who is sailing with a male guest whose back is full of ‘burning shreds’ (28). At the end we learn about a Saint Julie whose breasts were cut off. These little snippets are short, powerful moments that made my hair stand up and my body tingle. The narrator and her partner Jean-Lac are sailing the singer Mikeo and her husband Raoul around the Mediterranean coast. Throughout this first story the civilised nature of our characters slowly fades to reveal wildness and minute details related to the body: a singer without a voice, our lead obsessed with the singer’s toes, Raoul whose back is burning and the restlessness of a beautiful Jean-Lac’s spirit. Everyone has something amiss with or within their body. McNamara takes time to detail the food the crew eats, which is delicate for Mieko’s sensitive palette. Our basic primal needs are consistently highlighted: we must sleep, eat and fuck. There is a sense of hunter-gather isolation on the boat, it is a sanctuary that only briefly touches the mainland of culture. For example, Raoul wants a newspaper but no one ever makes a move to fetch one, relying instead on a novel of violence. The geography of the body and its intimate needs overrides all else.

This need to peek through civilized society to the primal undercurrents crops up throughout this collection. In Ukranian Girl, we discover the Ukranian stranger Yulia attending Louise’s party has fled from an abusive husband who ‘cracked her cheekbone twice’ (59). Alongside this is Louise’s husband’s sexual attention. He reaches ‘her cunt with his cool tongue’ (60), presenting us with a physical flip-side to physical relationships: one entrance is cracked, the other pleasured. Different women, different men. There is a sense of territory in Ukrainian Girl. Louise knows Yulia slept with her brother-in-law Diego, whose wife is at home and heavily pregnant. While Louise is not responsible for others, she considers herself ‘responsible for her lies’ (62). There an atmosphere of intrusion and betrayal, a family unit damaged by an invading presence. Louise is set adrift by Yulia’s history, the personal tragedies she discovers about her past and in the end, she strives to be just but fair to all parties, trying to cause as little hurt as possible. It is hard to hate ‘the other woman’ when their intricacies are exposed and their raw humanity revealed.

This territorial streak crops up repeatedly over the collection, changing focus from the body to a workspace to a mother-and-daughter relationship and many more. For me, this was most prominently shown in the stories 3 Days in Hong Kong and Love and Death and Cell Division. By far my favourite story, 3 Days in Hong Kong again explores ‘the other woman’, who checks into a hotel room under the name Philomena M. Told in the second person – possibly a technique to make the reader feel included in the deception – Philomena waits for her lover to arrive and each time their plans are foiled. McNamara’s talent for sensuality and sex explodes in 3 Days in Hong Kong with Philomena masturbating naked over the cityscape from her hotel window, her terrible drive to feel young and valued propelling her to scandalous behaviour. Over and over our aging narrator examines herself in the mirror, trying to see herself through her lover’s eyes but ultimately failing, laughing at his ludicrous language and gestures. Not only does Philomena intrude on another woman’s husband but she is placed in an unfamiliar environment, one she doesn’t venture into until the very end of the story. She is a caged animal who grows bored with her luxuries and his sweet words, eventually throwing them away for self-worth and freedom.

Love and Death and Cell Division takes us to a home being invaded. This time we see the sexual as disgust, as a violation. Mary’s nephew Shaun visits with his pregnant girlfriend Carlotta. It is eight months after he was discharged from hospital after an unnamed genetic illness nearly killed him while living with Mary. He wants to move back in with her, along with Carlotta and their unborn baby. When Shaun was taken to hospital, Mary found liberation in her returned solitude, glad to be left in peace despite the circumstances. As she watched the ambulance take him away, she noticed Shaun’s used condoms all over her garden, hanging ‘from the rose bushes, draped across the azalea and hollyhock, crushed beneath the peonies and zinnias; even hurled over the papyrus stand on the artificial island in the canal’ (123). Shaun’s sexual appetite was met at the expense of Mary’s home and while we never see her turn Shaun away, she remarks on how the dog smirks at her, reflecting her own sense of karma.

This collection is threaded with many themes, each as intricately woven as the next: landscape, music, the ‘other’, relationships and the many faces of love. I have highlighted only a few threads, there are many more for a reader to discover. McNamara’s stories take place in a wide variety of locations, each with their own unique landscapes – both geographical and human – and histories that are lovingly drip-fed to the reader. There is a sense of alienation in the exotic, as in nearly every story there is a visitor. Either as the narrator or a separate character, someone has been displaced by their newfound environment. In Return to Salt Pond, a couple are attacked by a local gang when they visit a friend while house-hunting and this disturbs their relationship. In The Kingdom of Fassa, a father and son return to the mountainous landscape that swallowed their wife and mother. In Hôtel de Californie, a tourist is terrified of discovery in a country where being gay is illegal. The Cartography of Others is an apt title, as not only do these stories explore the landscapes of others, but the stories are little maps of life across a much bigger map, from Hong Kong to the Mediterranean to London.

These stories are less ‘beginning-middle-end’ and more snapshots of life, similar to Rebecca Gransden’s Rusticles or Alex Behr’s Planet Grim, both of which I loved as they opened a door to others and the little details of everyday life. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to experience sensual pleasure of good literature and the little shocks sizzling away in The Cartography of Others.