I admit that I first picked this up because I thought the cover was gorgeous. In a land of beige and white (seriously, look at the trend in fiction book cover colors), the greens and blues and yellows and the sepia of the photograph – wow. And I loved the title. So by the time I read the inside flap, I was already sold on reading it.
P.S. Duffy’s novel is, without a doubt, an impressive debut. Set during the Great War, it focuses on one family’s experiences both at home and in the trenches. Angus McGrath, our brave hero, is a brilliant sailor who also happens to possess a talent for art. His paintings are his emotional connection with nature, a connection he seems to be lacking with his wife. He married Hettie young and since her brother Ebbin headed to the front, they’ve been even rockier. Now, however, Ebbin is missing and Angus decides to enlist in order to be closer to more information on his brother-in-law’s location. He is promised a place as a cartographer in London, but due to the overwhelming number of cartographers, he’s shipped out to the front.
Meanwhile, back in Nova Scotia, Angus and Hettie’s son Simon Peter is struggling to understand what is going on with the war. His grandfather, Angus’s father, is a pacifist and seems incapable of supporting his son’s decision to go to war. Hettie is distant, worrying about her brother and her husband. And Simon Peter’s teacher at school, Mr. Heist, happens to be of German descent. The community turns on Heist and Simon Peter is left alone to navigate circles of society, far more dangerous waters than the ocean upon which he sails.
As the novels plays out, we watch Angus and Simon Peter trying to cope with the changes in their lives without each other. Simon Peter does not watch men die in front of him, but he does meet George, a young man returned from the war with a severe case of PTSD. While he keeps clipping articles and propaganda, Simon Peter can’t ignore the facts: the men returning from the front are damaged, sometimes beyond repair, and there is no way anyone who has not shared the same experience can even try to sympathize. In Europe, the men with whom Angus has been since his dispatch to the trenches slowly die off, and, just as in the war itself, the story at times becomes a list of names of the dead. As horrifying as it is, it’s powerfully done.
When I started reading this, my only hope was that Angus made it back to Simon Peter (and I’ll spoil this: he does). As I got further, though, it wasn’t so much about getting home alive and well, but just getting home. The repeated Homeric motif worked well for the father-son storyline, with different characters on the front reading The Iliad or Heist suggesting Simon Peter read The Odyssey (“Simon had chosen the battle, even though Mr. Heist had claimed the journey home was equally if not more entertaining.”). We wait for our Canadian Odysseus to finally return to Ithaca, where his Penelope and Telemachus are waiting for him.
I was most impressed by Duffy’s ability to capture the war on both the European and home fronts. There are large portions of text devoted to explanations of battles or location or events, but it blends effortlessly in with the story itself. There was no point where I felt that I was reading a textbook (but, to be fair, I’m also a History major, and I think the Great War is one of the most fascinating periods of world history). And to be able to capture the emotions and actions of a historical war without droning on and on, that’s pretty impressive.
Now, here’s my only trouble with this book: is it geared toward men or women? And I’m not trying to be sexist, but most books are clearly aimed at one or the other. Things like The Hive are so obviously woman-books that I feel like I can’t really recommend them at any point to a man. Things like Double Cross (THE BEST BOOK EVER) are pretty clearly man-books. (I know – I’m saying it’s a man-book and then I’m saying it’s the best book I’ve ever read, but frankly it’s a pretty masculine book. If you haven’t read it, READ IT. It’s about the group of spies during WWII who worked with MI5 in order to ensure the success of D-Day. Absolutely fascinating. But now back to my dilemma.) So where does The Cartographer of No Man’s Land fit in?
It walks the line between woman-book and man-book, and here’s why.
For female readers, it pays great attention to the emotional consequences of war for both the soldier and his family. There is also the element of romance for both Angus and Simon Peter. Like, will Angus and his wife work things out or will he find comfort in a Frenchwoman’s arms because she understands life on the front? And will Simon Peter and Charlotte be able to connect in an innocent love?
For male readers, the whole story is based around father-son relationships. Angus and his father are at odds because of the war – Angus intends to go to war against his pacifist upbringing and his father’s advice, and Duncan cannot find it to be vocal in his support of his son. Angus and Simon Peter are both floundering in their relationship because Simon Peter needs guidance and Angus is lost in his own world. And Simon Peter and Duncan butt heads over Angus’ role in the war – Simon Peter is proud of his father and can’t understand why his grandfather refuses to be. It’s complex and powerful and painful to watch these three men dealing with the emotional baggage they’ve collected over the years. And also, there’s war, which is a pretty obvious point in the man-book category.
So here it is: the romance doesn’t overwhelm the story, but neither does the violence. It’s a beautiful story that everyone should read. It captures how families work and how to face adversity. And it’s so well constructed it’s just a joy to read.
Two thumbs way up for The Cartographer of No Mans’ Land – great cover, great story, great conclusion.