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Review: The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, by P. S. Duffy
Liveright, 2013. 366 pp. $26

There’s no real reason for Angus MacGrath, a Nova Scotia coastal shipping captain, to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916. Canada has no conscription; Angus, a onetime seminarian, has a wife and teenage boy; he’s an artist, so the natural beauty of his home matters to him; and there’s no pressure to join up. In fact, his father, Duncan, is a pacifist, so Angus should be primed to sit out the war.

Yet Angus’s brother-in-law, his closest friend, has been missing in action in France, and Angus wishes to search for him. An officer Angus knows assures him that his mapmaking skills will secure him a desk job in London, from which he figures to make inquiries. Nobody’s happy. Duncan’s furious, and Hettie Ellen, Angus’s withdrawn wife, gives merely tacit approval, hardly a rousing endorsement. Their son, Simon, who craves closeness from his father, tries to keep a stiff upper lip.

Turns out there’s no room in the cartography department—who could have guessed?—and Angus is made a lieutenant of infantry, a job for which he’s unprepared. However, to his surprise, he becomes a capable field leader, befriends his brother officers despite his natural aloofness, and gains the respect of his men. Gradually, his search for his brother-in-law takes on epic proportions.

Richard Jack’s painting, ca. 1918, The Taking of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday 1917, suggests a stylized version of a nineteenth-century battlefield, too clean and romantic to represent war accurately in any era (courtesy Canadian War Museum via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the United States and Canada)

Meanwhile, back in Nova Scotia, Simon tries to assert his independence, especially from his tyrannical grandfather, Duncan. Simon keeps a scrapbook of newspaper articles on the war and casts his father as a hero. He also befriends his favorite teacher, a German-born polymath, testament to the tolerance he’s learned at home and his ability to think for himself. Ominously, Simon’s friends and neighbors show neither quality.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a lovely novel, the more remarkable for being Duffy’s first; and as a historian of the First World War and its fiction, I can attest to its authenticity. Duffy has researched her ground meticulously, but, as I’ve said before, spending years in libraries and archives doesn’t guarantee a gripping narrative. Still, I defy anyone to find a dull, wasted page in this extraordinary tale. And much as I salute the author’s impressive grasp of detail, it’s how she deploys her knowledge that counts. Moreover, her seductive prose takes you by the hand and shows you what she wants you to see, as in this scene at a French estaminet:

Sweat, damp wool and liquor suffused the air as talk turned to the wonder of nurses, spotted that morning in their blue capes, managing to look wholesome, healthy and entirely unapproachable. Having stayed far longer than he’d intended, Angus headed for the latrine. Jostled in line, he thought back to the upper room in London — a sanctuary of measures, grids, coordinates and intersecting lines of longitude and latitude — where the cartographers he’d hoped to join bent over their stereoscopes, transforming aerial photographs into maps. There was something elemental and pristine about it, the careful, dispassionate execution, that called up the calming effect of drawing his birds — a tamping down of emotions too deeply felt. Sorry as he’d been not to join them, he was glad now not to have been part of their remote, sterile world.

Duffy effortlessly captures the camaraderie of men at war, the search for meaning amid the violence, the tension and release of battle. Even readers who shy away from such stories may find much to keep them glued to this one. For those interested, Duffy has re-created the Battle of Vimy Ridge in Arras, a source of such national pride in Canada that she feared to tackle it, she writes. However, her authorial bravery pays off, and the novel must rank among the best from recent years about the First World War.

Oddly, though, her home-front narrative feels somewhat less compelling. It belongs, because Duffy links the parallel journeys of father and son, as each strives to understand who he is. But Duffy’s soldiers steal the show, hands down. Hettie Ellen’s inner life never comes through (perhaps Angus might agree), and none of the women leave an echo behind them, except one in a cameo role. They’re not stick figures, by any means, just less full than the fighters. The home-front men do better than the women, but few have much scope, and though the Canada story has its moments, it doesn’t reach as high.

Nevertheless, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a very fine novel and an excellent addition to First World War literature.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.