In recent years, there has been a cultural focus on telling stories about the World War I era. Perhaps this is because the soldiers of that war are all gone and their stories need to be remembered. Perhaps it is because modern wars lack clear structure. Regardless, in her novel The Cartographer of No Man's Land, author P.S. Duffy builds upon this recent trend as she relates the tale of a family torn apart and a world torn asunder by the grand chaos of the First World War.
The novel relates the tale of Angus MacGrath, a Nova Scotia fisherman with a passion for art that has never been explored fully in his daily life and will not be fully embraced until he is placed into a world as devoid of art as it is all things that constitute life. Angus enlists, with intentions of being a cartographer safely behind enemy lines, to search for his brother-in-law who has gone missing. Instead of being a mapmaker, however, he is sent into the front lines, where he confronts death and the reader confronts gory descriptions that capture vividly the horrors of war.
The fantastic thing about the way Angus’s character is written is that Duffy captures one of the inherent ironies that plague self-discovery: that often we cannot truly define who we are until placed in the worst of circumstances, for it is on the war-torn front lines that Angus refers to as “no man’s land” where he ultimately finds himself. There, and seemingly for the first time, Angus is able to define himself. In his home, Angus was trapped in a rather ordinary life where his extraordinary aptitudes and sensibilities were underappreciated and never fully realized.
While the narrative relates Angus’s adventures oversees, it alternates to the home front, where Angus has left behind a wife bereft for her missing brother, a son struggling through adolescence without his father and uncle to guide him, and Angus’s pacifist father, who is violently opposed to the war that his son commits to voluntarily. These figures are all important to the story, and Duffy clearly shows that war influences all lives, including those who do not experience it firsthand. The emotional turmoil placed on Angus and his men at the frontlines rivals the emotional turmoil forced upon his family, friends, and the many townspeople who can only wait for soldiers to return home.
The novel’s focus shifts roughly halfway through the novel when the primary storyline—Angus’s search for his missing brother-in-law—is resolved and Angus is sent away from the frontlines because of injury. This abrupt ending of a major storyline is unexpected, so the reader is forced to abandon their investment in the story and certain characters to focus on the novel’s new direction. This type of shift is somewhat of a gambit on Duffy’s part, as the reader now does one of two things: abandon the novel or put forth the effort to switch to a different sort of story, one that focuses more on the consequences of war than on the action. After this, Angus is still a prominent character, but it as if his vitality fades while his son becomes a more relevant character. Sadly, this story lacks the depth that propelled it forward to this point, so Duffy succeeds in bringing the reader along with her for the ending parts, but this part is not quite as interesting.
Home becomes more prominent in the latter half of the novel, developing several minor storylines about the state of the townspeople. The war creates fear and hysteria that wreaks havoc with Angus’s family—especially his son, who endures tragedy plus adolescent problems of friendship and love. As Angus returns home, he seems as lost as his son. There are different circumstances, naturally, but the war overshadows all, if not as the driving force behind everyone’s problems then at least as the catalyst for their troubled awareness.
These issues may make the reader question why they have not given up when the story they were really invested in ended. Granted, the decision to stay with it is one of partial appeal, but there are some gems in the novel’s latter parts that make it worth reading. One of these fantastic scenes is when Angus rehabilitates in a seaside cottage with a woman who becomes his mistress and her son. This situation clearly parallels the family that Angus left behind him, so despite his seeming abandonment of that family to an affair, there is no sense of disdain at Angus for cheating on his wife. Instead, there is the sense that he, like everyone, has been so badly troubled by the havoc that the world has wrought upon him that he deserves comfort. Often, that is found in the familiar things like family, and when that family is not available, he seeks a temporary replacement. This particular part is beautifully written with descriptive imagery and a clear use of language as a powerful tool to describe the beauty of life, just as earlier Duffy used language to describe the horrors. The scene is brief, as all wonderful moments in life are, and the fact that it functions as the last true depth given to Angus’s character makes it all the more poignant.
So who, really, is the “cartographer” in this novel? Who is the one mapping out destines and lands so that everyone can find their way home again? The answer becomes muddied at the end, although it is certain that everyone gets lost. This somewhat troubling fact is an honest assessment that reveals a grander truth: whether it is the sweeping epic of war or a tragedy much more personal, it is only through others that we can be found.