The splintering effects of an unbroken “cycle of violence, unemployment, divisiveness” in Pakistan enfold and alienate the protagonists of this intense third novel from the author of Salt and Saffron (2000).
Narrator Raheen has grown up partially insulated from ethnic hatred in her native Karachi by her family’s comparative affluence and as the soulmate of Karim, her best friend since they were infants. In an echo of their country’s experience of Partition (from India in 1947), Raheen’s and Karim’s parents had made a “fiancée swap” in 1971 (the year of Bangladesh’s creation). Thus are division and uncertainty built into the intimacy between Raheen and “Karimazov,” as she playfully calls him, exercising the verbal wit (including desperately clever neologisms and anagrams) that typifies their not-quite-romantic friendship. In 1995, with Karachi again under siege, Karim’s parents remove him to safety in London. Years pass, he and Raheen connect only through correspondence. His desire to establish control over the shifting world in which he does, and doesn’t live increases his obsession with the certainties of “mapping” (i.e., “kartography”). And Raheen inquires of herself and others “why his mother broke off her engagement with my father”—gradually learning of the betrayals, lies, and secrets that simultaneously ensured their parents’ survival and illuminated their self-destructive weaknesses. In its artful uncovering of how people hide from themselves and one another, Shamsie’s tale partially echoes Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. But Kartography is oddly uninvolving, thanks to its narrative and thematic redundancy. Too many scenes and passages are too similar, and characters—several of whom (including, alas, Karim) remain undeveloped and indistinct—fail to fully engage our sympathies.
Shamsie’s stylish, energetic prose holds real promise for future books. Kartography, though, is a near-miss.