When his brother-in-law goes missing on the Western Front, sensitive artist Angus defies his pacifist upbringing and travels from his quiet village in Nova Scotia to join the war and find him. Although he signs up as a cartographer Angus is instead sent straight into battle.
In her ambitious debut novel P.S. Duffy offers an alternative WWI story, which is told from a Canadian perspective. The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a book that you can by no means rush as Duffy takes time with her delicate prose. There are beautiful, cinematic moments such as the idyllic prologue where Angus spends his last hours with his son before he leaves for the war. Duffy certainly has a talent for drawing the reader in and at times her story was so vivid it felt as if you were crouched beside Angus in the trenches.
The dual narratives, alternating between Angus and his son Simon, were both compelling to read. The juxtaposition between the horrors of the Front and the tensions in Nova Scotia worked wonderfully together as Duffy demonstrated how widespread the effects of the war were. In fact Duffy doesn’t just emphasise how horrific the war was but she also goes to great lengths to explain the sheer futility of it. All the soldiers, whether they are Canadian, English, French or German, are described with harrowing empathy. To Duffy it does not matter what nationality you are, the war was still unnecessarily cruel to everyone.
Yet, unfortunately, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is not without its flaws. Although Duffy has thoroughly researched her story, there were moments where the novel felt like a textbook. In the effort to emphasise the horrors of WWI Duffy hammers home the statistics and this ironically jars on the humanistic aspects.
Despite taking great care in stressing the brutalities of war, the plot itself falls flat. Duffy reveals the fate of Angus’ brother-in-law, Ebbin, far too early and this left little interest for the reader. Throughout The Cartographer of No Man’s Land it felt as if the author was far more interested in teaching the reader about the Canadians role in WWI and the number of casualties, rather than focusing on the storyline. Her characters, who held so much potential at the beginning of the novel, end up becoming symbols and stereotypes. You have Mr Heist, the German immigrant teacher who offers philosophical advice to Simon; Publicover, the brave and dashing soldier, and George, the shell-shocked soldier. Most of the characters felt relatively flat apart from Angus’ father. Duffy does a wonderful job of showing the heart wrenching inner conflict that Angus’ father is going through: choosing between his love for his son or his own pacifist beliefs.
However, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a great debut novel and P.S. Duffy has brought a refreshingly new perspective to WWI literature.
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