Book review: ‘The Cartographer of No Man’s Land,’ by P.S. Duffy

November 25, 2013

THE CARTOGRAPHER OF NO MAN’S LAND

By P.S. Duffy

Liveright. 371 pp. $25.95

After raising a family, combined with a 27-year career in neuroscience, P.S. Duffy has turned to writing fiction. Her first novel is an addition to the literary canon of World War I — and it’s an addition of the very best kind. Duffy, who grew up in Baltimore, is a mature writer who understands the nuances of human behavior as well as the marks left on society by the larger strokes of history. In “The Cartographer of No Man’s Land,” she weaves these complex strands into a compelling story. Turning the final page, I wanted to go back to the beginning, if only to contemplate a writer who has such a broad and compassionate understanding of the human condition.

The story is one of lifelines: a rope, a mast, a hand, an oar, the North Star and a deep understanding of navigation. Angus MacGrath, a painter who is also the skilled navigator of a small boat on the Atlantic coast, is caught between his desire to create art and his responsibilities to others. He has a demanding father, a distracted wife and a son who needs his attention. When his brother-in-law, Ebbin, goes missing on the Western Front, Angus decides to enlist so he can try to find him. Although he signs up as a cartographer, he is surprised to learn that he will be sent directlyto the battlefields of France, where his services are urgently needed. “Get that Lieutenant Mac­Grath,” a senior officer tells another. “Good with maps. Uncanny sense of direction.”

Duffy writes about trench warfare on the front lines as if she were crouched in a dugout, watching. Two main stories keep the action moving forward: one from the ongoing war, one from the home front in Nova Scotia. Each anchors the other, although the story of Angus and the elusive Ebbin is, at first, the more engrossing.

While Angus carries out his duties as a junior officer at the front, he continues his search. Is Ebbin alive or dead? Officially, he has been declared “missing in action,” but Angus is not willing to give up his personal mission without proof. At times this dual role overwhelms him, and he surrenders to his surroundings as if he were at sea. Immediately after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, “a rhythmic ticking started up, like a halyard tapping a mast. The source — a rope, fixed at the top of the trench, stretching the length of a timber to the ground — was tapping in the wind. Angus leaned his hand against it and hung his head and let the rise of the swells take him beyond the sound of distant shells exploding, the light of flares, beyond hunger and fatigue, far beyond and back, until he was awake again, on deck, on watch.”

Questions about Angus’s fate and Ebbin’s survival create tension that is maintained by surprising twists and turns. Just as one story line is resolved, another takes its place. This quality — the ability to engage, to lead the reader down one path only to divert credibly into another — makes this novelist stand apart.

As to the characters’ motivation, we are left to decide for ourselves. The German soldier who lies, even while knowing that lying will cause his death; the boy in France who loves Angus as if he were his own father; Angus’s wife, who “was a mystery, drawing him in, keeping him at bay” — all of these characters reject easy choices. There is also Angus’s father, who rails against all wars and will not compromise his beliefs. What comes through clearly, grimly, movingly, is the futility of war, the futility of unnecessary losses and unspeakably horrible deaths. Beauty, however, is not always sacrificed to ugliness and brutality; these can be different points on the same compass.

Ultimately, it is Angus who has the weightiest of morals to measure. He is the one forced by family and circumstance to tread the minefields of truth and lies. He must learn to live with himself and his decisions, knowing that some of the men and women closest to him are not capable of the same. “Trust me,” Angus says. “I know where I’m going.”

Itani’s post-World War I novel, “Tell,” will be published next year.

THE CARTOGRAPHER OF NO MAN’S LAND

By P.S. Duffy

Liveright. 371 pp. $25.95

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