There are three characters in this intense story: twin sisters and a house. The women are never named and the location of the house is never given – although the trams suggest somewhere in Melbourne – and their shared history suggests Bosnia or perhaps Kosovo. Fergus has been careful to leave the details to the very minimum such that the story becomes universal and appropriate to any country where there has been an explosion of ethnic violence, systematic rape and torture.
For ease of explanation I will refer to the sisters as the Cartographer and the Artist. Initially it seems that the Cartographer lives for order and the Artist prefers Chaos but it is not as simple as that. The Artist is capable of methodical research and analysis and the Cartographer’s OCD-like behaviour becomes wild and destructive. Their world is tiny and empty of almost anybody else. The sisters are ‘the right sort of refugees’ and they have no connections to the world now. There are no longer any friends, lovers, family or neighbours to say hello or spit at them and they have not made any new connections in their new country. The action takes place in the Cartographer’s house or at the office, never at a park or grocery store or any other public place where danger might lurk. They have chosen to become trapped inside the house, inside themselves.
The patterns that structure the novel risk becoming irritating but it is clear that they are designed to mirror the compulsions that drive the Cartographer. The structure is rigorous and tight; each chapter opens with the house and the numbering of the chapters indicates whose story is being told or which location on the map is relevant.
Fergus has tied her ideas closely together in complicated patterns centring on the map and the Cartographer’s choice of a Point of Beginning. There are a host of ideas at work here: mapping in early post-colonial studies, power relations at work in the Mercator projection, the pink of Empire and Foucault’s gaze. Most of the time we take for granted where we are and what our place is in this world, but such things are not simple in Fergus’ world. The meltdown at the end of the novel is triggered by the Cartographer’s subjective, empowering choice of where the map of this new country will begin. She will choose where the map starts. Once marginalised and abused, kicked into exile, she is going to decide what the world is now, not anyone else; she will put herself at the centre. It is not conciliatory or democratic, this reaction, and it is not sensible given that she destroys her house and her job in the process – but it is understandable. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and her violent explosion is the reaction:
I will have no more unquestioned assumptions. I will not be gutted, I will do the gutting. I will pull the bones from my house, I will fillet it, splay it open, I will read, in its entrails, everything I need to learn.
The problem is that this reaction is illogical and cannot help. It will provide no more answers than reading entrails gave the Roman haruspex. Although they are sparsely presented the characters are very compelling and you wonder what will happen next. You hope that they can find something to lessen their pain, that they will find a new referent, a point of beginning, and be able to start all over again.
This is an impressive first novel and it will be interesting to see what Lara Fergus does next. It would make a fine gift for a friend who enjoys reading and appreciates something a bit different, something thought provoking.