By Ananya Vinay
Nowadays, paper maps are an anachronism. More often than not, a GPS is a substitute for the physical map; paths fill with pixels of blue and red to replace the hum of traffic. ‘The Cartographers’ by Peng Shepherd is a call-back to the era of fine ink that guided us to destinations dreamed and planned. Nell, a frustrated cartographer, must dig into her family secrets after the death of her father. During her search, she finds new connections and uncovers surprising truths.
Nell was fired by her own father during the infamous ‘Junk Box’ incident, an argument triggered by her discovery of an old gas station map. The plot is so well paced that the gas station map never manages to overshadow Nell’s own story unfolding. At first, it’s mystifying why an old map would cause such division, but it’s revealed that it is not just any old map. The gravity of a small town gas-station map gradually comes to light, marking Nell, her father, and The Cartographers. These are no mere mapmakers, but a group attempting to break down the boundary between the real and the imaginary in mapmaking. The plot switches points of view with ease between Nell, Felix, her lost love, and Ramona Wu, a member of The Cartographers. The sheer propulsiveness of this book makes any spoilers unfair, but Nell’s supposedly dead mother has a strong link to this mysterious group.
More than anything, this book reveals that maps can change the world. Not just in some vague metaphorical sense, but that the sizing and perspective of our maps shift our perception. For example, the Mercator projection makes Africa smaller than the West, leading to a persistent belief that Africa is a country and cementing centuries of global oppression that are only now changing. In terms of the novel, it plays with our expectations for maps and argues that maps are reality. Nell discovers that the gas station map is a phantom map made for insurance settlements to win cases in court. Basically, making a room on a map carves it into existence. Anything from hiding in imaginary rooms to illusions on a far larger scale. In The Cartographers, maps are the deadliest of things: a tool. It turns out imaginary places can too become exclusionary and spark discord.
Through piecing together the saga of the gas station map, we find out the distortions of mapmaking and of humanity. We minimize chasms and magnify microcosms with equal ease. Nell discovers that maps can divide and unify, but it’s the space between that carries the most risk. Supposedly, maps are the truth. However, The Cartographers slowly unveils that maps, the very lamp post for our perplexed hearts, are rooted in the space between truth and falsehood that most of the world lies in.
In the end, we are all cartographers of our own destiny. Though the plot sounds fantastical, the truth is that the imaginary dictates as much of our lives as the real. Perhaps our daydreams are just phantom rooms carved on the map of our soul. Nell’s journey of balancing solid mirages and cold truth is portrayed with poignant, elegant, and suspenseful prose. The magic lies in opening the secret dreamer in our subconscious to the infinity of imagination. The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd is a compelling page-turner that asks us to hunt for the phantom stories in the fabric of space time and map them in our hearts.