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I don’t want to blend in, like some of the others, slough away the past, adopt this new place, or rather attempt to be adopted by it, as an orphan. No place will mother or father me now. Countries are not mine and I am not theirs. I feel nothing for them, they are merely temporary, political intrusions into geographic cartography. There is just me, my draftboard, my rented house.

The phrase a nuclear family has always struck me as a strange one. For all its clinical focus on defining the family unit as a set body, it manages to lose all sense of what makes a family, namely the messy series of overlapping relationships that exist regardless of dysfunction. Yet the family continues to be focused on as an exactly defined entity, whether it be for a moral crusade (gay marriage, abortion, even divorce – I remember the propaganda surrounding the divorce referendum in Ireland in 1995), a population census, or marketing. The idea of what the family should be seems to take precedence over the reality.

Lara Fergus’s novel is a discussion of how such ideals as family, ethnicity and personal identity can survive in a vacuum, whether the objective categories we structure our lives in relation to can survive indefinitely.

The story begins with our nameless cartographer already embarked on a strange personal obsession. She is determined to define her own home in relation to a central point, capture it with a map of her own creation. It will account for each of the objects within the house and even herself, a constituent element of the home, defined on paper by the rules of her profession. The interior is spartan and orderly, allowing for ease of measurement.

One evening the cartographer is disturbed by the arrival of her twin sister, begging for a place to stay. Initially she refuses. The presence of her sister would threaten the viability of her work, a foreign object straying into the controlled environment. Despite her objections, however, the twin sister refuses to leave and eventually is allowed to stay for a short while. The cartographer prefers to focus on her work, but her sister insists on discussing the outside world and trying to engage her in conversation. The two siblings have not seen one another for over a year, with the sister having abandoned the cartographer after the outbreak of a disastrous war. Now the country they called home no longer exists, their family is scattered across borders as refugees and their ethnicity is reason enough to be suspected by the police.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn some of what the ‘other’ sister endured over her time away from the cartographer. How she was forced to flee from the threat of murder and rape at the hands of soldiers, living like a fugitive in the wilderness trying to avoid checkpoints and patrols. While the cartographer has become obsessed with the study of ordered space, her twin is consumed with grief at what she has lost. The house itself becomes divided between them due to their polarised responses to the traumatic exile from their eradicated past.

Lara Fergus has fashioned a deeply intimate portrayal of the relationship between two sisters, made all the more affecting by the cartographer’s absorption in abstract ideas of space. Like the characters in Goethe’s Elective Affinities she is attempting to render the personal as something scientific, an objective reality. There is a telling moment when she mentions how her professional work is supposed to be referred to as ‘ours’, and not ‘mine’, to reinforce morale. She is denied ownership even of the tasks she performs to earn money (which in turn is spent on a home she rents). In the absence of real identity, she has turned to a self-created ordered universe emanating from her draft board.

Fergus’s descriptions of the house itself reflect the cartographer’s perception of the building, a living thing that waits for her to return from work. Its surfaces contract and expand with the temperature, the lit windows resemble watching eyes belonging to some massive creature that sits on her street. Her relationship to her home is similar to the notion of architecture defining our identity described by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space. The presence of her sister is therefore a personal invasion into her sense of self.

This is a thought provoking and fascinating novel. I greatly enjoyed it.

With thanks to Spinifex Press.

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