Book Review: The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P.S. Duffy
From a hardscrabble fishing village in Nova Scotia to the collapsing trenches of France, an astonishing debut novel about family divided by the great war.
Nova Scotia, 1916. Angus MacGrath, a skilled sailor and navigator, is lost—caught between a remote wife, a disapproving father, and a son seeking guidance. An ocean away from his coastal village, missing is Ebbin Hant, Angus's adventurous brother-in-law and best friend. Ebbin's unknown fate sets Angus on an uncharted course with profound consequences for those he loves and those he comes to love.
In search of his own purpose and hoping against all odds to find Ebbin, Angus defies his pacifist upbringing and enlists. Assured a safe job as a military cartographer in London, he is instead assigned to the infantry and sent to the blood-soaked mud of the front-line trenches in France, where he begins his search.
At home his young son, Simon Peter, once wide-eyed about the war—clipping stories and sneaking propaganda—must navigate uncertain loyalties ina village succumbing to war fever. Separated by the ocean they once sailed together, Angus and Simon Peter search for what it takes to survive, each trying in his own way to return to the other. Every character in this exquisitely told story seeks to protect what matters most in the face of war's upheaval.
Drawing on extensive research and years of sailing in Nova Scotia, and inspired by the silent testament of sacrifice in the battlefield cemeteries of France, P. S. Duffy brings us a breathtaking work of historical fiction, epic in scope but intimately rendered. The Cartographer of No Man's Land is a novel about the immutable thirst for meaning in a shifting, uncertain landscape.
Penguin Books Canada | October 29, 2013 | 352 pages
Set on the front lines of World War I Europe and also in a small Nova Scotia fishing village, P.S. Duffy's The Cartographer of No Man's Land is a engaging novel of life during war. The narrative shifts between the stories of Angus MacGrath, an officer with the Canadian Army stationed in France, and that of his young son Simon Peter, who must get through life back at home in Nova Scotia without his father to guide him.
Duffy does an excellent job developing the novel's principal characters, especially Angus. When Angus joined the Army he was under the impression that he would serve as a cartographer in London, a position that would allow him to safely search for information on his best friend and brother-in-law, Ebbin, who has been reported as missing in action. Angus, however, ends up as an infantry officer in France, serving in the trenches with his battalion. While this turn of events provides Angus with ample opportunity to uncover Ebbin's fate, it is a situation in which he is uncomfortable as he doesn't feel he has what it takes to adequately lead the men under his command. As the novel progresses, however, it becomes evident that Angus is a good officer, one who is committed to the welfare of those who serve under him.
I've read a number of novels set during WWI, many of which do an excellent job of conveying the horrors of life in the trenches. The Cartographer of No Man's Land is no exception to this, but what distinguishes it from the other novels I've read is that it also showcases the guilt many injured soldiers felt about being out of harms way while their comrades were still fighting, and how they yearned to get back to the front lines to help them (even in cases where they were medically discharged from the military). I also enjoyed how Duffy characterized the various men who served with Angus. Another aspect of this novel I particularly like is the fact that it focuses on the war efforts from the Canadian perspective. A good portion of this novel takes place in the lead up to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which was won by the Canadians and is considered the most significant battle in Canadian history, and its aftermath. When the narrative shifts back to Nova Scotia the reader is able to gain an appreciation for life in wartime Canada, including how Canadians of German descent were treated, how little understanding or sympathy there was for those soldiers who returned home with less than sound minds, and how difficult it was for soldiers to readjust to life away from the front lines.
While I enjoyed both Angus and Simon Peter's stories, I think it is Angus' tale that makes The Cartographer of No Man's Land such an engaging book. There is a lot going on in this novel, but it never feels as if it is too much as Duffy does a good job of tying everything together. I do think more could have been done with respect to Angus' wife, Hettie, especially given Duffy alludes to certain aspects of Hettie's life that the reader may wish were explored further. Ultimately, however, this novel isn't about Hettie and as a result the fact that her character didn't receive more attention did not detract from my enjoyment of the book.
Well-written, with interesting story lines and characters, The Cartographer of No Man's Land is highly recommended to anyone looking to read a great work of World War I-era historical fiction.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars Source: I received a copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.