Can you truly convince yourself that what you’re experiencing day-to-day is real, and that you haven’t, by any chance, stepped into the afterlife?

In “The Cartographers,” Amy Zhang explores this question and what it means to try to make sense of the world around you. The story centers on Ocean, a depressed, listless young woman who recently deferred her college admission. She’s done this without telling her mother, who believes Ocean is busy tackling her first year at university. The only real amount of recent good fortune in Ocean’s life is her newfound friendship with Georgie and Tashya, two strangers she’s signed a lease in New York City with. Beyond that, she spends her days growing sick with the idea that she’s in hell — that nothing around her is real, and the inexplicable agony and detachment she feels is punishment.

While on the subway, Ocean has a chance encounter with Constantine, a man whose
mysteriousness charms her for reasons she doesn’t have the words to explain. Emboldened, Ocean continues to meet with Constantine, and in lieu of texting, communicates with him through a shared live document, where they write to each other about numerous ramblings on life. From this encounter, Ocean enters a journey of trying to understand why she feels so magnetized to this person, while the palpable problems facing her — mother unaware of her academic deferral and her mental health state, the costs of living in a city so big it threatens to consume — hound her at every step.

A large part of what makes “The Cartographers” memorable is its unapologetic approach to
tackling the messy, deeply scarred feelings that come with depression. Every reflection on how Ocean perceives her alienation from society rings true; every passage shines a light on the real emptiness embodied by someone living with depression. These kinds of feelings are especially important to highlight in the YA space that the novel occupies.

The way detachment and loss of self is described in the novel is nothing short of visceral and poignant. In one memorable passage describing Ocean’s growing belief that she’s found herself in hell, she recounts moments in recent memory where she begins seeing devil imagery in everything. This includes a spectrum raging from a cartoon devil on a business logo to her friend’s devil Halloween costume, which, while innocuous to others, is further proof to her of damnation. Her descent is harrowing to experience as a reader, but for many turning the page, it’s their truth, and perhaps a comfort to see themselves in her.

Alongside Ocean’s perspective on the nebulous state of her own life, her relationships to the friends she’s made and the boy she grows enamored with form the core of the novel. Ocean knows Georgie and Tashya are there for her, but as they stay busy grappling with their own issues, she struggles to reach out and give voice to the full extent of her suffering. While it makes sense for Ocean to close herself off in the way that she does, it would have been nice to see Georgie and Tashya take up more presence in the novel, if only to serve as fuller, more realized characters.

Meanwhile, Constantine holds the majority of Ocean’s attention, with the latter initially inclined to begin a relationship with someone who might understand what she’s going through. However, Constantine’s eagerness to talk about life and philosophy — but never willing to directly respect the real, tangible feelings Ocean tries to express to him — drive her to further confusion. Should she continue to speak with him, when he’s not the person she was hoping he would be, and is in fact something much more unclear than she could have imagined? Constantine is an intimidating, captivating presence in Ocean’s life, and her entanglements with him keep the novel’s themes of trying to understand yourself and your relationship to others at the forefront, even if his words and actions will, intentionally, make for a frustrating reading experience.

“The Cartographers” may not be for everyone. What reads as a realistic portrayal of modern life to some might come across as perplexing to others, and that metric is measured by how much the reader can see themselves in Ocean. If you can feel that connection, though, the novel is undoubtedly a refreshing testament to life’s various crashes that occur as we attempt to map our way forward.

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