An extraordinary book that defies categorisation. It purports to be the notes of a 12 year old boy prodigy who is obsessed with making "maps" (including all sorts of illustrations and diagrams, both literal representations and more metaphorical). Several are published in respected journals and when he unexpectedly wins a fellowship of the Smithsonian, he runs away from his family's ranch in Montana to attend the event and give a speech in Washington DC.
The first two thirds concern TS's life and journey, and the narrative is heavily annotated with notes and diagrams. His father is a cowboy rancher and his mother a somewhat detached entomologist he calls "Dr Clair". He is clever, analytical and talented, but still has toys, fears and occasional imaginary conversations with inanimate objects. As well as his own story, occasional mentions of his younger brother's death in a shooting accident gradually build up a sad sub-plot. There are also two long passages of biographical notes of an ancestor who was a pioneering female scientist; they were too substantial and thus intrusive for my taste.
The final third of the book is completely different and not nearly as good. It loses all credibility as the plot seems more like something from Dan Brown: a mysterious old man, secret societies, secret underground passages, wormholes and adults who ignore all aspects of caring for someone else's (injured) child. Very disappointing.
Nevertheless, there are delights in the book. The passion and compulsion of explaining things visually is wonderful: "I think we are born with a map of the entire world in our heads... The patterns are already there and I see the map in my head and draw it... part of the reason I drew my maps in the first place: to return the unfamiliar to the familiar... an unfinished map always left a little tickle in the back of my throat." Mapping is an act "of translation and transcendence", so "a map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we didn't know were previously connected".
TS has a intuitive appreciation of landscape, "the railway tracks cut straight ahead, asking no questions of the bedrock... the river talked with the land as it wound its way through the valley" versus "the serpentine geography of civilisation... a collective obsession with the comforting logic of right angles." Less literally, "The air was not filled with thought bubbles or sidelong glances. Everyone was sleeping, all of their ideas and hopes and hidden agendas entangled in the dream world".
There is humour too (he has "the kind of mother who would teach you the periodic table while feeding you porridge but not the type, in this age of global terrorism and child kidnappers, to ask who might be calling her children.") and fear ("past midnight, sounds in old houses were no longer governed by the laws of cause and effect").
Maybe this book would appeal more to 12 year old boys; I'm not sure. It reminds me a little of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and TS does have slight Asperger tendencies (e.g. feeling uneasy about the "naked wooden square" of a pencil that was missing its rubber and grooved metal ring).
In some ways, I think it only deserves 3*, but it is so original and so beautifully presented, that I've given it 4*.