Siegfried Sassoon—British poet and decorated World War I soldier—wrote in his poem “Dreamers”:
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows
Sassoon appears briefly, off-stage, in P. S. Duffy’s first novel, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, which is set in both Nova Scotia and France during the last years of the Great War. Angus MacGrath, the novel’s protagonist, has just heard his father, Duncan, say that Sassoon has refused to continue fighting, in a protest on behalf of all soldiers. “Sassoon does not speak for me,” Angus replies, “I speak for myself.”
And yet. Angus’s service as a lieutenant in the (fictional) 17th Royal Nova Scotia Highlanders at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and in the months preceding it, marks him inescapably as a citizen of death’s grey land. Unwilling to think or speak too much of his family at home for fear of rendering them “unclean,” Angus fixates on the men in his regiment, his world shrinking to the parameters—physical and emotional—of the Western Front. Angus even finds a substitute wife and son within a couple of weeks of his arrival in France. Survivors themselves, they understand, without needing to articulate their understanding, how imperative it is to focus on the here and now, never thinking too far ahead, never reflecting too much on the horrors that have already come to pass, never complaining that the dividends of time’s to-morrows are not to be theirs.
The specter of death’s grey-land is never far away, and it is with this constant threat that Duffy’s novel unfolds, split between Angus’s experiences in France and those of his wife, Hettie Ellen, and son, Simon Peter, back at home in Nova Scotia. The original pretense for Angus enlisting was to find his brother-in-law, Ebbin, who is Hettie Ellen’s brother and of whom she appears to possess a mystical, unreciprocated understanding. Angus, whose drawing and painting skills are superior, is to be a cartographer in London, far from the action on the Western Front but presumably close enough to find Ebbin, who is missing after the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. When Angus arrives in England, he is instead assigned to the infantry, and told to use his drawing skills to help with mapping and intelligence-gathering needs in the trenches.
Among the novel’s great strengths are the unpredictable twists and turns that ensue in Angus’s search for Ebbin. Duffy’s sense for narrative pacing is strong, and as a reader I was at times swept away by exciting and unexpected plot developments, most of which concerned Ebbin. Less convincing is the triangular relationship between Ebbin, Angus, and Hettie, the power of which is supposed to drive the story. Despite Duffy’s explanations, it is difficult to understand why Angus felt so moved to leave Canada and search for Ebbin in the middle of a war. Likewise, it seems odd that Hettie, who throughout the book is a quiet yet strong woman, would be so captivated and unmoored by her brother, often to the point of not being able to function as a mother or a wife.
The novel as a whole is multi-layered, and though the mix of multiple themes, characters, and storylines results in a book that is often expansive and stimulating, at times the many moving parts can be overwhelming and even redundant. I had difficulty keeping track of all the minor characters on both sides of the Atlantic, and it seems a little contrived that The Iliad and The Odyssey keep showing up. The biggest downside of so many people, themes, and storylines, however, is that potentially interesting backstories and sub-plots disappear. Intriguing references are made to Angus’s decision to leave seminary training, but the reasons behind this decision and the ramifications it had on the way he sees the world dissipate after the first half of the book. Similar is Simon Peter’s determination to fish the Banks, a dangerous but lucrative fishing spot; this fixation, which suggests interesting dimensions to his development as a young man, vanishes after one short encounter with a minor character.
Two characters in particular are superbly drawn, however, and are evidence of Duffy’s knack for storytelling. Avon Heist, Simon Peter’s German-born schoolteacher, is a sympathetic yet dignified man, whose love for great literature, languages, and the pleasures of gardening and living by the sea make him an object of suspicion in a jingoistic town. George Mather, a man who returns home twisted by the war, a visible source of embarrassment to the townspeople who celebrated his enlistment, proves to be a powerful narrative foil for Simon Peter and his dreams of the glory of war. And throughout the novel, Duffy crafts beautiful yet occasionally devastating scenes: Angus’s killing of a German officer who had just shown him a postcard of a Montreal hospital; Simon Peter struggling to swim in ice-cold ocean water; the sight of a sloop’s mahogany hull hanging in a cradle; the layers of blue in a butterfly’s wing.
The Cartographer of No Man’s Land demonstrates Duffy’s tremendous promise as a novelist, but it is uneven in execution. The sophistication of characters like Heist and Mather, for example, is juxtaposed with odd, often discordant descriptions of and dialogue from other characters. Many of the characters, including children, seem to speak only in perfect one-liners, and some pages of dialogue read unconvincingly like well-crafted and articulated rapid-fire lines from a screenplay. Characters who are fat suffer the most—Duffy’s rendering of them tends to rely on hackneyed descriptions and heavy-handed verbs. They “trundle” and “lumber” like “a slow-paced engine going down a track”; they are “heavy” and “massive”, “a stout little kettle boiling over”, their hands “plump” and “gloved tight as a sausage in its skin”.
Still, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a compelling first novel. Most compelling is Angus’s gift for drawing and painting, which Duffy vividly channels, and which ties together so much of the book. In one of the most stirring testaments to her gifts as a writer, Duffy describes what Angus sees at the end of his first day in the trenches. She uses language that makes the lessons of World War I new again for modern readers, even though these lessons have permeated the cultural memory bank for decades.
That evening during stand-to, the sky crossed itself with streaks of lavender, yellow, and rosy pink over the unhinged earth, over the coiled barbed wire, unexploded shells, rusting equipment left to rot in No Man’s Land—a cratered landscape of ruin. Had his pastels survived, Angus would have been hard-pressed to put them to paper. For in that silken sky above and wounded earth below lay all one needed to know—a knowing so obvious, it hardly needed an artist to expand it into a larger truth.
Duffy may not have needed to expand this scene into a larger truth, but in doing so, like Sassoon before her, she reminds us of all we need to know.