Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 31, 2012

A New Map of the Universe, by Annabel Smith

A New Map of the UniverseAs anyone reading this blog knows, the advent of book-blogging has been an absolute boon for lovers of literary fiction.  As newspaper space for book reviews compresses it gets harder and harder to find out about the books we love and LitBlogs have moved in to fill the gap.  On budgets large and small we book-lovers seek out titles we’ve learned about from niche bloggers we trust, and these days we’re all enjoying our reading more because we have recommendations to guide us.

But still, it’s the serendipitous discovery of a new author that brings the greatest pleasure.  The sheer delight of reading an exquisite book by an author you’ve never heard of is an unexpected joy.  And so it has been with my discovery of A New Map of the Universe by Annabel Smith, published by UWA Publishing in 2005,  shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards, but not given the attention it deserves.  I hope I can do it justice with this review…

The story unfolds in four parts, revealing the heart-breaking story of Grace and her parents.  A series of personal tragedies, not so very unusual, have impacted these lives – and grief sabotages their relationships.  It has made them inarticulate –  incapable of expressing their emotions except in eloquent silence.  The pain they cause each other is immense, and enduring.  For Grace, whose dreams and ambitions of a career in architecture have collapsed, a new relationship with Michael offers a new sense of self, but Michael’s obsession with the stories of ancient astronomers takes him off to remote parts of Egypt.  And it’s even harder to communicate by letter than it is face-to-face…

Smith’s writing is exquisite, seductive and powerful.  It’s not a page-turner in the usual sense, but the present tense narration gives the novel immediacy and intensity and I could not stop reading until I finished it in the small hours of the morning.  Lured by captivating imagery and intimate detail in settings that range in time and place – from contemporary Perth to a village in postwar Bedfordshire and then what seems like a timeless journey across the Nullarbor to Melbourne, I simply had to discover the legacy of silence and secrets that lay at the heart of this novel.

Smith’s mastery of diverse settings is part of what gives this novel authenticity, and  there was an added treat for me in the descriptions of my childhood haunts in Balaclava, especially Greenmeadows Gardens which was the park at the end of my street!  Even a train journey to the back-blocks of New South Wales is rendered with a painterly eye, but it was the road trip which  fascinated me because I have done that trip myself and know its monotony:

She has heard about the way it can hypnotise you, this dark road on which you can drive for one hundred and fifty kilometres without turning the steering wheel.  So she searches the horizon to keep herself awake, forcing herself to look at the blown-out tyres and the mangled, bloody corpses of the kangaroos lying in the dirt, which becomes redder and redder the further inland she drives.

When the road trains loom towards her she grips the wheel with both hands, bracing herself against the rush of air as they roar past.  The rest of the time she drives with only one hand on the wheel and she waves at every car she passes so she will not feel quite so alone. (p220)

Alone on the endless, featureless road, Grace talks to herself:

Out of habit she talks to Michael too, meandering conversations that she rehearses, line by line until she is word perfect.  In the past it has comforted her, recalling the quiet way he listened when she spoke, imagining his responses to her thoughts and feelings.  Today when she catches herself she feels guilty, treacherous, as though she has broken a promise.  For this is what she is driving away from, what she hoped to leave behind in Perth.  She is tired of a life only half lived, of storing her best away for an imagined future that might never unfold.

Yet still the words she wants to say to Michael rise up from inside her: soft and round, they hide beneath her tongue, stick to the roof of her mouth; sharp and small, they catch between her teeth.  She feels them, like pebbles or like flints, each with a different texture, a different taste.  She finds the weight and shape of each one before she opens her mouth and spits them out of the window, leaves them lying among the animal carcasses on the side of the endless road. (p220)

This is a journey that brings a resolution of sorts, but this is no naïve love story.

Annabel Smith is a young writer of great promise and I’m really looking forward to her next novel which is due out soon.  Keep an eye on her website here.

Update 13/7/13: A New Map of the Universe is now available as an eBook.  Follow this link.

Author: Annabel Smith
Title: A New Map of the Universe
Publisher: University of Western Australia Press (UWAP), 2005
ISBN: 1920694552
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Availability:
Fishpond:A New Map of the Universe (New Writing S.)
Or direct from UWAP

Or, in Victoria, use ZPortal Search to find one in a library near you or request an inter-library loan.  I’m sure other states have something similar.


Responses

  1. “On budgets large and small we book-lovers seek out titles we’ve learned about from niche bloggers we trust…” Well said, Lisa.

    I have been slogging my way through a couple of “difficult” books for review and have been desperate for something that sings to my soul. Some time ago, I did read a review of ‘A New Map of the Universe’, thought it sounded like something I would enjoy and then promptly forgot about it.

    As one who has travelled extensively throughout Australia, I immediately connected with the authenticity of the road trip quote you supplied and the description of the words that Grace unearths and spits out made me catch my breath in surprise.

    Memory jogged by your terrific review, I refuse to forget again so I immediately headed to Fishpond. Knowing that this book is on its way will give me the impetus to finish the others I’m wading through.

    • I am so pleased to hear this, Karen! I know that you will love it:)
      It is so full of delicious writing that I had a hard time deciding what to quote. There is an especially gorgeous piece of superbly controlled erotic writing featuring early in the book which will take your breath away, but hey! the ‘house style’ of ANZ LitLovers is ‘family friendly’ so *giggle* I thought I’d better not quote that bit!
      Annabel’s blog quotes excerpts from The Weekend Australian and The Canberra Times but I couldn’t find these reviews online, too long ago I guess?
      That reminds me, I forgot to add a link to her website, I’ll fix that now.

  2. Thanks for such a generous and thoughtful review Lisa, I’m so glad you liked it. And what an amazing coincidence that you lived in the street that leads to Greenmeadow Gardens! It’s pretty rare to read a book with a scene set in a street you’ve lived in, especially when it is such an obscure little street.

    • I don’t do ‘generous’ reviews, Annabel, only honest ones *warm smile*. I really loved your book and the familiar streets were icing on the cake. I lived in Melby Avenue, which abuts Greenmeadows gardens from the west, and I know all the surrounding streets because I used to walk the dogs almost every day.
      It has changed a lot since we lived there. In the 1960s most of the houses were gorgeous old Edwardian and Queen Anne styles but now ours (no 13) is one of the few that’s left. It’s been beautifully renovated by the current owners, but most of my mother’s garden was still intact last time I went past…

  3. I do agree with your opening remarks about the value of book-blogging (but what an un-lovely term – I’d like to see a more elegant phrase – blogging sounds like something brutal one does at a gym work-out). But seriously, it is becoming more and more difficult to find thoughtful reviews and I appreciate what seem to me the Herculean efforts that must surely go into ANZ LitLovers – it amazes me on a daily basis!

    I’ve ‘discovered’ (well, hardly, because he’s won many awards) a masterly short story writer – in the vein of Raymond Carver. Nathan Englander’s new collection ‘What we talk about when we talk about Anne Frank’ is, I think, astonishing for such a relatively young writer. Provocative and elegant. Jonathan Franzen says, “It takes an exceptional combination of moral humility and moral assurance to integrate fine-grained comedy and large-scale tragedy as daringly as Nathan Englander does.” and Geraldine Brooks says, “Nathan Englander writes the stories I am always hoping for, searching for.” I’m not sure if it’s the ‘done thing’ to recommend a writer in a comment – but I hope you can find time to review him one day.

    • Hello Ros, can I tempt you to do a guest review of Nathan Englander’s book? I’m not very good at reviewing short stories, but I trust your judgement and would like to have a review of the book…

  4. The next best thing to discovering a new author/book yourself is for another bookblogger to share one with you. Thanks.

    • You’re welcome! I love introducing debut Aussie authors to new readers:)

  5. […] on by Lisa Hill’s review at ANZ Litlovers, I finally got myself a copy of Annabel Smith’s ‘A New Map of the Universe’ and I am thrilled […]


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