Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw

24 February, 2011

Tash Aw’s second novel is beautiful. I must confess I don’t know much about Indonesia; just snippets gleaned from some of my Indonesian friends, my father’s trips to Java in the 80s and in museums from my trips to Holland. But I was keen to read this after having enjoyed Harmony Silk Factory so much a few years ago.

I think what made Map of the Invisible World so special were the characters, especially Margaret, an American who has lived most of her life in Indonesia: strong, resourceful and believing she no longer needs love. Then there’s Karl, the Dutch artist for whom home is also Indonesia, and 16-year old Adam, his adopted Indonesian son pining for his brother Johan who was adopted by a Malaysian family. Set in the 1960s as Sukarno is purging Indonesia of it’s colonial past and student uprisings where ideology and violence clash, this is rich and fertile ground for a novel about identity, loss and belonging.

Margaret, a lecturer at the University in Jakarta, is visited by a distraught Adam as he tries to find Karl who has been taken away by the military. In a time where anyone with white skin is viewed with suspicion and the Dutch Indonesians are being repatriated, Margaret must get help from Bill, her old colleague at the US Embassy, a slippery, resourceful man with the whiff of the CIA, and Mick, a jaded Australian journalist, to track down the first man she ever fell in love with before it’s too late. In parallel, Aw cuts to Malaysia and Johan, Adam’s older brother, struggling with his guilt for leaving Adam behind as a child at the orphanage. His adoptive family are affluent and even though he wants for nothing, his life is empty and he is chasing his demons away with fast cars, drugs and girls.

On a more sinister note, we see the desperation of activists such as Din, Margaret’s colleague and graduate student, bitter and poor, and Zubaidah (or Z) who runs the zine for student activism, as Indonesia transitions from a colony to a republic. We can feel the anger of the mob towards the West agitated by government propaganda and pent-up frustration over the years and the Indonesian government’s own faults in trying to modernise and nationalise the country. What Aw is also good at showing is the tension within Indonesia itself as the government tries to mobilise and move it’s people around the country, often displacing different ethnic minorities without thought to how their cultural identity will be affected. And also incredibly interesting is Indonesia’s relationship with its more affluent and nearest neighbour Malaysia: the similarities, differences and prejudices which arise, especially in Johan’s story.

Although gripping and in some places alarming (I was very worried about Adam’s involvement with Din in many places), Aw’s novel is beautifully written and lyrical and draws the character of Margaret in a very real manner. And like Harmony Silk Factory, Aw doesn’t give you a neatly wrapped up story with a tidy ending. The novel ends with a note of hope, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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8 Responses to “Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw”

  1. Steph Says:

    This sounds amazing. I want to read more about the Eastern hemisphere, especially South East Asia, so this seems like a must-read to me. I don’t think I’ve heard of this author before, so I’m off to check him out!

  2. nymeth Says:

    Something about your description put me in mind of Half of a Yellow Sun. Which is to say, I think I’d love this!

  3. Maggie Says:

    I wanted so much to like The Harmony Silk Factory but it didn’t end up that way. I loved the first part of the book – the characterization of the protaganist by his son – which I thought was very well-written but the second part of the book ‘Snow’ lost me and by the end of it, I just couldn’t finish the third part. I want to give Map Of The Invisible World a try.

  4. Mystica Says:

    I had read about this book but never got around it or to any of the books by the same author. Time I started.

  5. Tony Says:

    Tash Aw. Another author I really have been meaning to get around to. Sigh 😦

  6. JoV Says:

    Read this last year coincide with the Indonesia National day and review the book as a tribute. I feel meh about it but didn’t love it. Being a Malaysian, I very much hope to read Harmonic Silk Factory and see what I make of it.

    Glad that you liked this!

  7. chasing bawa Says:

    Steph: Hope you like The Harmony Silk Factory, Steph!

    Nymeth: Argh, I still have to read Half of a Yellow Sun. I really should since I’ve seen her speack!

    Maggie: I have to agree that I also preferred the part about Johnny, but overall I thought it was a refreshing novel and really liked it. But do give Aw’s second novel a try and see!

    Mystica: Yes, it’s time!

    Tony: Too many books, too little time?? I hope you are well:)

    JoV: You may identify more with the Harmony Silk Factory as it’s about Malaysia. I do have to say that in Map of the Invisible World, the bits set in Malaysia weren’t as vivid as those set in Indonesia. What really interested me was the interest in and the part communism played in both countries.

  8. Eva Says:

    This sounds SO good! I want to run out and get it from the library asap. 🙂


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