Catherine McNamara’s The Cartography of Others is a collection which maps out the geographies of relationships and far-flung locations with acumen and grace. These short stories are eclectic in form with a broad range of themes but each feels elastic with movement, transporting us to contemporary London, Ghana, Hong Kong and along the jagged peaks of the Dolomites.
Themes of displacement are conveyed remarkably well by the unusual structure of this collection. Essentially, it is an atlas of human relationships featuring vivid yet brief encounters where readers touch base with some of the character’s most intimate experiences. Each story has satisfying brevity, maybe a few hours or days in the character’s company then we’re moving on. These are fictional studies of human nature in which small truths are brought intensely into bright light. Touching hands with such a wide cast of characters brings an implicit knowledge of the ephemeral: we won’t be at this story face for long because of the pull of the next, something deeply restless and unrooted, a driven quest for belonging to the right community soon. This traveller’s premise of flitting place to place permits a rare authorial intimacy that normally takes substantially more reading time to achieve.
McNamara’s writing is renowned for its sensuality. She writes about sex and desire head on with the same lushness and verve as she tackles all other themes and aspects of characterisation. Whilst McNamara explores the complexities of dislocation and identity thoroughly what glisters in this collection is the way she shrugs off patriarchal notions of desire. Social ideologies of subordinate women are explored rigorously and the imbalance between desire and reality emerge fluid on the page.
In ‘Three Days in Hong Kong’ a woman touches herself at a hotel window for her lover whilst he dines with his wife. There’s the luxury hotel, champagne, handbag; all the accessories of seduction are trotted out but when the second-person narrator admits: ‘You don’t like the ahh sound that escapes through his nose after sex. You don’t like his bum’ it brings exquisite relief. The absurd simulation of desire solely for male gratification is exposed in this story via the shortfalls of her lover and beautifully renegotiated on women’s terms. Desire becomes something unspoilt: the lover’s untouched skin on glass, the potential outside in the body of Hong Kong, ‘with its view of light-pocked buildings behind buildings and the harbour heaving in its black bucket.’
‘The Ukrainian Girl’ details a man’s casual infidelity with a stranger through his sister-in-law’s disapproving eye. His heavily pregnant wife is absent from the party – too incapacitated to attend. The question of trust and its face breaking open is manipulated throughout the plot with well-staggered emotional restraint. A sister-in-law becomes unwilling voyeur. Sex is carnal. Truth distorted. In the knowledge of another’s betrayal all aspects of trust become slippery from 1:1 intimacy to strangers on the street. The flower stall outside work, a colleague tells her, ‘are forgiveness flowers. Forgive what? Forgive me for beating the shit out of you.’ Nobody is as he seems. This story stains on: corrosive.
McNamara frequently uses completely unrelated images that mint her language with unexpected vibrancy. In particular, this collection brings stark new perspectives to the familiar. In the opening story, Raoul is ‘big as a cupboard’, furniture being an unlikely object to gauge height but at once readers know the immensity of his light-blocking size.
In ‘Astragal’ a little girl goes missing in the snow and her grandfather reflects back on her birth. The imagery captures a new-born baby’s Otherness with precision: ‘He had held her when she had been hours old, with her insect-like unreeling and the throbbing apricot in her chest.’ Here, the infant is unrelatable, another species entirely but the startle reflex of that insect’s jerky limbs is unmistakable. Vulnerability is also felt keenly for that soft stone-fruit of a heart. This is language with a cadence of its own.
‘The Cartography of Others’ is an accomplished collection with displacement, identity and desire at its heart. It maps out stories to places readers may never have been but they’ll reach the last page [breath held] convinced they have.