Map of the Invisible World

By Tash Aw (Spiegel & Grau, $25)

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Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

It’s the 1960s, and Adam, the 16-year-old Indonesian protagonist of Tash Aw’s exquisite second novel, spends his days eating simple meals of rice and curry and listening to classical music with Karl, his white adoptive father. They live on a poor but peaceful island that is engulfed by “the steel blue sea” upon which the sails of fishing canoes tremble “gently in the wind.” But the politics of the era throw Adam’s placid adolescence into peril. Karl is apprehended by president Sukarno’s armed forces, which seek to rid the fledgling archipelago nation of traces of its colonial past. Karl might face deportation back to Holland or, even worse, death.

Adam absconds to Jakarta, a city teeming with corrupt businessmen, communist youth groups and frustrated students. He tracks down Karl’s long-lost lover, Margaret, a roving, jaded American professor who has connections to U.S. intelligence agents and Sukarno himself. The boy melts this frigid intellectual’s heart, and she agrees to help reunite him with his father. But suddenly, Margaret’s disgruntled Indonesian assistant abducts Adam and manipulates him into launching a terrorist attack.

This climactic plot is interspersed with florid, mesmerizing flashbacks to Margaret’s precocious youth and to Adam’s early childhood in an orphanage, where his older brother Johan was torn from him. Johan, it turns out, was adopted by a wealthy family from Malaysia, and an alternate thread reveals the story of this boy’s anguished existence.

Aw’s allegorical allusions to Southeast Asia geopolitics are interesting, but what makes his book brilliant are its rootless main characters. These fully formed individuals and their relationships transform what would have been merely an astute postcolonial novel into a moving meditation on identity, memory and art.—Hirsh Sawhney

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