Title: The Cartographer of No Man’s Land
Author: P.S. Duffy
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication date: 2014
Paperback: 384 pages
Why did I chose to read this book? I felt it was apt to read a WW1 fiction novel on the centenary of WW1
Where to read this book? In the newly opened grounds of the Imperial War Museum, London (or IWM North in Greater Manchester.
Set between Canada and the trenches of the First World War’s front line we meet Angus MacGrath and his family. When his beloved brother-in-law, Ebbin goes missing along the French front in 1916, Angus defies his pacifist father’s upbringing to join the war, find him and bring him home. Assured a position as a cartographer in London, he is instead sent directly into the visceral shock of trench battle. Meanwhile, at home, his son Simon Peter must navigate escalating hostility in their small, Canadian fishing village torn by grief and naivety.
The story is narrated by two voices; that of Angus and the other of his son Simon, presumably to provide a deeper insight into the experiences of WW1 both on the battlefield and on the Home Front. To an extent it does succeed, unfortunately I wasn’t wholly convinced and found myself swiftly flicking though Simon’s fourteen year old monologues to get back to the gritty front line with Angus.
The chapters from Angus are alive with real emotion, detail and strength of character. The camaraderie of the Canadian troops and Angus’ search for Ebbin are engaging and brutal. The passages that are devoted to the preparations for the assault on Vimy Ridge, that carry through to the men going over the top are poignant and unrelenting. Studying this period of history, I already knew much of the content, but the focus on the Canadian troops was a new angle and this was of much interest.
However, Simon’s accounts and experiences are dull and lifeless. I was irritated by him and also his mother. A highlight came in the descriptions of how, as the war continued, hostilities rose towards a German teacher, a feeling that grew exponentially and without basis. This was the only strong element that I enjoyed from these chapters.
At the beginning you’re given to believe that the search for Ebbin will be the central focus. However, as the story advances, it’s clear that Ebbin is the spark that lights the fuse to discovering Angus’s story. Ebbin is actually used as a very effective tool to give an insight into the minds of the men on the front line and the issues surrounding morale amongst the troops.
The ending was disappointing. It tailed off and was one of those books that I actually turned the page expecting more but was faced with a blank sheet of paper. I felt like Duffy had got to the end exhausted and given up.
Overall, it was okay. The story offers a smattering of insight and I did enjoy Angus’s voice – it’s just a pity that that comprised only 50% of the book.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10