Book Review: Map of the Invisible World

Two Indonesian boys in the tumultuous 1960’s are attempting to find themselves and save their loved ones in this wonderfully developed novel.

Set in 1960’s era Indonesia, Map of the Invisible World by Tash Aw, follows Adam and Johan, two orphaned brothers, separated in early childhood, as they live their lives in the upheaval of political change.

Adam, now sixteen, has been raised in a rural village by Karl, a Dutch artist, who has made Indonesia his home.

In the capital, Jakarta, there is Margaret, a long ago friend of Karl, currently a teacher at the university, attempting to befriend her young and taciturn assistant, an Indonesian native with revolutionary inclinations and to find her place in the changing climate of her adopted homeland.

The tightening restrictions of the military, as President Sukarno attempts to eradicate the colonialism of the past, puts all Indonesians on high alert.

Johan, living a life of privilege in Malaysia, feels that he has betrayed his younger brother by not escaping his planned adoption. The dynamics of his adopted family do not allow him to discuss his past life or what may have been so he struggles with himself and his self-worth constantly. His relationships with Tom and Farah, his adopted siblings are fraught with undercurrents of risk and adventure. These are those he loves but he is not responsible for them. His one responsilbility is the one he has lost.

Adam has led a sheltered life in the village with the reclusive Dutchman. He has been educated but not radicalized. His youthful naivety and familiarity with abandonment leads him to find his own strength after Karl is arrested as an enemy of the state. The fact of Karl’s Indonesian nationalization has allowed him to exist through many stages of purges but he has now disappeared in the custody of the police.

Adam takes the unprecedented step of investigating his father’s papers and finds pictures of and references to Margaret. In an almost impossible journey he travels to the capital to find her and ask for her help.

Margaret finds herself immediately responding to this boy she has never met in aid of a man she has not seen in decades. This takes her to the American Embassy, the international news service and eventually to President Sukarno himself. These are all connections from a period in her life she would rather forget. 

Margaret’s specialty is an unerring eye for the particulars of non-verbal communication. So she is able to successfully traverse a wide variety of situations and cultures. Unfortunately, the one person she has not been correctly attuned to could now be a great danger to Adam.

The interwoven voices in this impressive novel speak to the upheaval that political change and military influence have on every minute aspect of individual lives. Aw also gives the reader access to a great many sides of the political equation and leaves us with a better understanding of the moral fluidity that characterizes foreign relations.

Map of the Invisible World is wonderfully written and I will be reading more of Tash Aw in the future.


Cecie O’Bryon England is the Editor of Arts and Literature at Donne Tempo Magazine.


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Cecie O'Bryon England

Cecie O'Bryon England is a writer, reader, and artist who lives with her husband, the musician, John Henry England, and their two children, in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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