Set in the world of the international trade in antique maps, this novel’s title seems most apt. Maps, from the early centuries of scientific map-making, from the Renaissance on, were not just scientific artifacts, they were also works of art, objects of soul-satisfying contemplation. Even as the grid of longitude and latitude and the outlines of continents and islands were more accurately laid down, the maps were profusely illustrated, as though they were a continuation of the tradition of the centuries of medieval illustrated manuscripts. Sea monsters, ships and shipwrecks and floating casks, exotic creatures of all sorts, human and animal, mythological and real, occupied the yet unknown spaces, even as incompletely known land masses increasingly took on their actual shapes – California, for instance, first depicted as an island, then a peninsula, finally the western rim of a continent. In telling his story, the author throws out, all but casually, a dizzying array of information about both the craft of cartography and famous maps. From the medieval T-O prototype to the controversy (still ongoing) over the so-called Vinland map to the disputed attempt to sell the Hereford mappa mundito the (fictional) dismantlement for sale of the individual leaves of a 1606 English edition of the 1570 atlas Theatrum orbis terrarum by Abraham Ortelius, cosmographer to King Philip II of Spain. By the time this latter event takes place, the reader has been so artfully brought into this world of beauty that it seems the premonitory sacrilege it truly is, a desperate attempt to stave off the truly shocking ending which turns the novel’s title on its head.
The story begins with Kenji Tanabe, a young Japanese curator of antique maps in a large art gallery in Tokyo, greeting guests to the opening of an exhibition, in which his display of maps plays an altogether minor, subordinate role. We learn that Kenji, despite his youth (mid-20s), has developed a particular skill in arranging his displays to illustrate the historical development of scientific knowledge. One guest, an American, extends what seems but a casual job offer to Kenji to come to America. The next morning, the gallery director, who had hitherto exhibited no interest whatsoever in Kenji’s specialized area, rudely and publicly criticizes his display and orders him to change it. A major loss of face. Kenji, wholly unaware that the two events are connected, decides to take up the American’s offer. Met at the airport in New York, he is driven south to Rare View, the headquarters estate of Theodora Appel’s global antique map business. An altogether new world for Kenji.
The author, an Irishman living now in Italy and who has published previously on relations between Europe and Japan, has laid the groundwork well for what turns into more than a bit of a thriller, though for anything but the normal reasons. He is particularly good at conveying the somewhat heady atmosphere of this world where art and big money meet, uneasily, and the gracious environments in which these characters do their business. Capturing, for instance, the easy grace of the Japanese built environment: ‘gnarled plum trees stood in ranks and tall bamboo swayed over darkened paths.’ Or the fateful pull of an aging Florentine palazzo: ‘Sparkling dust swirled in the brilliant winter light [as] they stared up at the frescoed map of Italy on the ceiling.’ And, from my own experience, I can say that the description of the delivery of Kenji, past Washington, D.C., to Rare View in the northern Virginia countryside is reminiscent of the drive to CIA headquarters.
Theodora, in her early 40s, presides over her collection of mostly youthful assistants in a manner more maternal than boss. She had been instrumental in reorienting the antique map business from the antiquarian book trade to that of the fine art world. Her staff meetings are graduate seminars as she teases out the story of each new acquisition, a master class in the minutiae of map-making. We – along with her assistants – learn about ‘cockling’ (the small waves in tanned vellum), ‘rhumb lines’ (the compass directions), the microscopic differences left by each strike of the engraved plate. And we learn that Theodora is a master salesman, using her passionate physical knowledge of each map to bring potential buyers into a shared world. Unlike Kenji’s fixation on the scientific progression of map-making, Theodora believes, ardently, that ‘maps capture time…maps had a cosmos.’ But we also learn that she can be ruthless with those who attempt to cross her – this is a sometimes cutthroat world, an inevitability it would seem where so much money can change hands. Her passion and her ruthlessness combine in her undoing. Driven by grief over a dead lover, she knowingly gets herself into a financial deal with very much the wrong sort of people. The ending is a true horror, shattering in this world of grace and beauty.