The Cartographer of No Man’s Land
By: P.S. Duffy
Format/Source: Advanced Reading Copy courtesy of Penguin Canada via NetGalley
When his beloved brother-in-law goes missing at the Front in 1916, Angus defies his pacifist upbringing to join the war and find him. Assured a position as a cartographer in London, he arrives overseas and is instead sent directly into the trenches, where he experiences the visceral shock of battle.
Meanwhile, at home, his son Simon Peter must navigate escalating hostility in a fishing village torn by grief and a rising suspicion of anyone who expresses less than patriotic enthusiasm for the war. With the intimacy of The Song of Achilles and the epic scope of The Invisible Bridge, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land offers a lyrical and lasting portrayal of the First World War and the lives that were forever changed by it, both on the battlefield and at home.
It seemed timely that I read this novel given that Remembrance Day is this month. The premise of the novel interested me–I find it really fascinating that a lot of novels are emerging lately with a World War One setting–and to be honest I love the title of this novel. I was approved of a galley copy of this novel from the publishers in exchange for an honest review.
This book is part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in.
Contains a minor spoiler ahead!
It took me a little while to warm up to the story as all of the principal characters had to be introduced as well as the problems that they were facing. The story goes back and forth between the Front and what was happening back in Nova Scotia. I was personally much more interesting with the storyline happening in the front, though both are important in painting the whole picture of the war and its impact both to people involved at the front and the loved ones left behind. Angus’ experiences at the front, the battles he was involved in–leading up to the taking of Vimy Ridge, Canada’s greatest victory during the war–and the mystery of what happened to his brother-in-law were interesting and the latter especially added further plot for Angus at the front. The latter story about Angus’ son Simon Peter and Angus’ father was also important in showing the complexity of the war, the hardships that families had to endure, waiting for news about what’s happening at the front, the Pacifist movement and the shifting opinions of the war.
Survival is an important theme in this novel and takes different forms both at the front and back at home with the internment issues. Everyone has their own way of surviving through the horrors and obstacles before them. There was one particular line that encompassed this theme, I think:
“Survival is the surprise,” Conlon wrote, “death expected.”
– p. 348 in the ARC (please refer to the published edition for the actual quote)
I thought that line was very powerful, that sense of bleakness and numbness that the soldiers had to steel themselves with. In fact, there’s a lot of lovely lines throughout this novel. The following especially caught my attention because it contrasted so much with the bleakness of the trenches but also encapsulated Angus’ artistic side:
From the loft of an abandoned stone house with startlingly blue shutters, a large wardrobe tipped forward and disgorged a banner of fabric in the exact same blue, fluttering up and away against the pale sky. French blue, Angus decided. He lusted after it, the purity of that blue.
– p. 87 in the ARC (please refer to the published edition for the actual quote)
The Cartographer of No Man’s Land can be a bit of a disconnected experience to read but it is nonetheless a well-written, well-researched novel that brought the realities and experiences of the First World War to life as well as the constancy of life itself, how relationships keep on changing and how lives keep on going regardless of a major war raging an ocean away. I did think that the novel ended at a rather strange point, like the resolution was still midair. I understood that Angus had a lot to go through–to accept and make peace with–now that his service ended but I felt a little unsatisfied about his last scene in the story. I recommend this novel for readers of historical fiction and novels that take place in and around the First World War.