After reading and loving Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot earlier this year, I was compelled to track down Annabel Smith's first novel. A New Map of the Universe was published as part of the UWA Press New Writing initiative which has also published other local treasures. And my edition was even signed. Hooray!
This beautiful, sensual, lyrical novel is a story of loss and longing that spans three generations and multiple continents, stressing the importance of the overarching beliefs we as humans build to connect us to each other- whether that be religion, science, emotion, love, art etc. It begins with Grace meeting Michael at a party. The two of them fall in love, and at first it is clear that Grace idolises Michael from the opened eyed, open jawed way that she takes in everything that he says. She begins to adapt his interests as her own. But it turns out that Grace does have her own interests- she was once a top architecture student, but she quick when it turned out she could not impress her mother- and slowly but surely, Michael coaxes this out of her. He asks her to build a house for him. Her imagination cannot be constrained.
Disaster strikes for Grace when Michael leaves on a research trip to Egypt. The longer they are apart, the more Grace doubts herself and the reality of her relationship with Michael. She is sure she loves him deeply, but the superficiality of his letters cause her to see the relationship as shallow, a passing thing. She is reserved in her own letters so as not to seem a fool. Finally, she abandons her project, and Michael.
The narrative then shifts backwards in time, telling first the story of Grace's father Peter and then her mother Madeleine, and their quests for something more which led them to each other. What each story does is tell beautifully of the process of rebuilding yourself- mapping the universe anew- in the face of loss and heartbreak. This novel shows a great understanding of the simplicity and universality of human emotions that might otherwise seem too complicated to make sense of, and it is one that moves the reader from an almost sexual longing to a more deep-seated emotional longing. It is an easy tale to relate to, and I give in four out of five.
P.S. I wonder if anyone else has noticed that the author put the name John Marsden on one of the soldier's tombstones in book 2... I bet I'm not the only one.