The Selected Works of T S Spivet by Reif Larsen

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The Selected Works of T S Spivet by Reif Larsen

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: A child prodigy sets out across America, mapping his world and his journey in minute detail. A dizzyingly diverse, ambitious work which nevertheless remains accessible and engrossing. Recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 392 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 978-1846552779

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Tecumseh Sparrow (TS) Spivet is 12. He lives on his parents' ranch in remote rural Montana and makes maps. TS maps everything – from his sister's movements when shucking corn, to the facial expressions of adults, to the gunshot that accidentally killed his brother the previous year. When the Smithsonian Institution, unaware of his age, calls to say that his illustrations have won a prize, he packs a suitcase, hops a freight train and sets off alone for Washington DC.

TS recounts his epic trek across America with the aid of many diagrams scattered around the margins of this book. Along with his footnotes and digressions, they attempt to impose order upon a chaotic, confusing, complex world.

Elements of the book reminded me of other novels. The obsessive noting of detail and the digressive footnotes were reminiscent of Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine. In American novels from To Kill a Mockingbird to Catcher in the Rye, an unreliable child narrator (TS is a compulsive liar) has exposed the hypocrisies of the adult world. There are even hints of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time in TS's slightly autistic behaviour, and something Harry Potter-ish about a benign, possibly supernatural secret society which takes Sparrow under its wing.

However, author Reif Larsen has transcended the sum of such influences to produce an engrossing and original novel. There is no doubting its scope and ambition, akin to TS's own 'lifelong task of mapping the real world in its entirety'.

The uniting themes of family and heredity arise from TS's ill-matched parents: his father a taciturn cowboy; his mother, Dr Clair, an obsessive entomologist. TS clearly takes after his mother who, we discover, is not as paralyzingly empirical as she seems. She turns out to have imaginatively documented the life of one of her husband's ancestors, an early female geologist – here presented as a story-within-a-story which parallels the lives of both Dr Clair and TS.

Along the way, Larsen ropes in Darwin and quantum theory, religion and feminism. He maps social as well as geological strata and explores tensions between art and science, creationism and evolution. This sometimes suggests too much breadth and too little depth. Overlaid on a relatively slight plot, the whole at times feels too disparate to hold together.

Such reservations aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Its richness and quirkiness captivated me and, as someone who can find novels a chore (in particular unconvincing first-parson narratives), I genuinely found it hard to put down. Sure TS, as a child prodigy, has a vocabulary and learning way beyond his peers, but this could simply be because he is telling his story from an adult perspective - we are never told at what age his narrative was written.

Despite his mendacious tendencies and his gnomic utterances, TS Spivet is hard to dislike. Because of his age and personality, he is both vulnerable and sophisticated; naive yet knowing. Through his eyes, we see the world afresh in all its dizzying diversity and infinite wonder, and you can't ask much more of a novel than that.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag. We also have a review of I Am Radar by Reif Larsen.

If this book appeals then we think you might also enjoy Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese.

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Buy The Selected Works of T S Spivet by Reif Larsen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Selected Works of T S Spivet by Reif Larsen at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Selected Works of T S Spivet by Reif Larsen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Selected Works of T S Spivet by Reif Larsen at


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