7. The Tattooed Map by Barbara Hodgson

Published in 1995 by Chronicle Books.

“My arm no longer belongs to me. It’s become another thing — to be admired and studied but not a functional object. It no longer carries my watch; it feels too precious to be made to hold things and I can’t bear to touch myself in case it spreads even further. As I become detached from it, I can admire and appreciate its physical beauty as though it were a map drawn out over months of exploration and study, but the moment I remember it’s mine, a part of me, I reel with nausea.”

Lydia and Christopher are the oldest and best of travelling companions. Former lovers and perennially out-of-sorts friends, they are perfectly attuned to the other’s idiosyncracies, without suffering them gladly. The two embark upon a meticulously planned journey to Morocco, intending to stay in North Africa for six months. Chris, a shrewd antiques dealer, scours the cities they visit for prized furnishings requested by his well-to-do clients, consulting his arsenal of haughtily precise buying lists.

Lydia, on the other hand (hands being a point of importance in The Tattooed Map, but more on that anon), is, by her own blithe confession, “just happy to wander. If I had my way, I would wander forever and ever.” After an uncomfortable layover in a disreputable motel, Lydia awakens with what she initially believes to be a cluster of flea bites on her left hand. During her days of heady exploration and documentation of Morocco’s multifaceted faces, Lydia observes, bemused, as the red puckers on her skin morph into an increasingly detailed map. The more Lydia attempts to unearth the secrecy surrounding her skin-inheritance, the more fevered she grows with semi-lucid dreaming. Her wanderings towards the truth of the tattoo take her beyond the grasp of the reader, and halfway through the journal, the confused, distressed Christopher turns to the same form of archiving he initially scorned—he keeps Lydia’s journal, both proprietorially and actively. His entries follow her own, each one an echo of her voice, each one hoping against hope that he will see her again.

Lovers of ephemera, of detailed dealings in flotsam and jetsam: The Tattooed Map will be a gold-starred destination on your literary sojourns. The novel is an archivist’s dream, bordered and fringed with annotations of addresses, grammatical conjugations in foreign tongues, pencilled-in calendars, rows of photograph details, sketches and schedules, of tattered post-its and sepia postcards. Nor does what would ‘normally’ be themed marginalia live merely in the margins of Barbara Hodgson’s freshman offering—maps, leaflets, full-page illustrations unfurl and explode across the shared journal. That which is pictorally visual carries as much importance as what is scripted. Hodgson has achieved an enviable balance of drawing us in through text and art. (I urge the furrow-browed cynic not to think of the concept that fuels The Tattooed Map as a carefully contrived, convenient marriage between scrapbooking and Photoshop, but rather like the brainchild-project of an author and an artist on vacation. Then, marvel at the fact that Hodgson is both author and artist on this lavish endeavour.)

I read the book in one fevered setting—to fully embrace this confessional rant/purloined pocketbook of a pair of lost and longing travellers, a first, urgent reading feels like the most authentic approach. The mysteries of Lydia’s  branding with a growingly elaborate cartographic plan, and her subsequent disappearance, held me in their thrall. I was unprepared, however,  for the emotionally satisfying journey of Christopher’s stilted, half-crazed forays into unearthing odd truths, in his quest to reclaim his missing friend.Somewhere along this sepia-studded, map-fragmented journey, my mind declared itself a willing and active participant in the baffling mystery at the core of The Tattooed Map. I hungered for an answer that would stymie and spellbind me, a plot machination of hefty and impressive weight.

I was dismayed not to find an answer, therefore. The last few pages of the novel seemed to sweep up in a rush to meet my impatient hands. I turned a page, hoping to have my fears for Lydia either quelled, or released in a grateful sigh—to meet blankness. The end of the book resembles nothing so much (initially) as a well-timed slap in the face, not one that is unkind, but rather, matter of fact. It is a proclamation that, perhaps archly, declares, “Well, what did you expect? This isn’t The Da Vinci Code, after all. You should have known better than to search for some fantastic, absolute overarching set of theorems and loopholes that fall neatly into place.”

In any fictional tale that shies away from clear cut propositions in plot resolution, if there is no happy, formulaic ending, then it follows naturally that there is no ending suffused with sadness, either. In fact, I will leave it up to you, dear reader, to discover how much of an ending there is. Will you be ultimately frustrated or fascinated by the peregrination of this novel, which resembles a thousand spiral staircases curling upwards towards some infinite, unknowable end? You may not love this ending, but it would be a challenge not to love the journey. To pass on The Tattooed Map would be to deny your wanderer’s spirit a whirling-dervish adventure, despite the possibly disquieting dust cloud it leaves in its wake.

“Only your skin and your tears will allow you this journey.”