Recently, I was lucky enough to share a stage with Tash Aw and Thomas Keneally at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival. Earlier this week, on a long transit day home from Jakarta via Singapore I finished reading Aw’s Map of the Invisible World. I’d picked up the book at Sydney Airport on the way to Indonesia: you’ve really made it when your book is for sale in airports (also, the prizes and the longlisting for the Booker for his first novel might have given me a hint).
Map of the Invisible World is set in 1960s Indonesia, a time of considerable political and social unrest. Aw pulls back history like it’s a skin, exposing surprising human mechanics underneath. He’s a fine and subtle and humane storyteller. Two characters stood out for me. First, there’s Din, a seemingly mild bloke who turns out to be anything but. Second, there’s a riveting cameo by Aw’s version of President Sukarno.
Very occasionally, I found the dialogue a little forced, as if the characters were feeding background information to readers. But this is, I think, more or less inevitable in novels with complex political and historical elements. If it’s not inevitable, I haven’t yet read the novel that entirely overcomes it. I also found the novel’s ending slightly neat and tidy, but that’s a personal taste thing. Overall, though, it’s a terrific novel that deserves a wide audience.