In 1916, against the wishes of his pacifist father and contrary to his own artistic inclinations, Angus MacGrath straps on his kilt, leaves the fishing village of Snag Harbor and joins the Canadian army to fight in World War I. Set in Nova Scotia and France, "The Cartographer of No Man's Land" bridges a gulf as wide as the Atlantic. Through the alternating perspectives of Angus and Angus' son, Simon, P.S. Duffy's debut novel juxtaposes middle-aged man and idealistic boy, coastal fishing village and war-torn countryside, beauties of nature and monstrosities of war. It is a deep and vivid exploration of the human heart and the high seas, reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" or Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News."
Angus MacGrath is a skipper of a coastal trading ship but also an artist yearning to capture "things beyond his knowing" on canvas. After his brother-in-law goes MIA, Angus enlists to try to find him. Although Angus is assured a safe desk job as a cartographer, he soon finds himself in the trenches, where he displays a tough, fatherly devotion to the soldiers under his command even as the more tender aspects of his psyche duck and cover. Wherever he finds beauty — a lark singing on a bullet-ridden uniform suspended from barbed wire — he captures it in charcoal, quick sketches that end up trampled on the bloody terrain.
Meanwhile, back in Snag Harbor, Simon fights battles of his own, which include missing his father, defending a beloved teacher, attending to a withdrawn mother and a crusty grandfather and just being a 14-year-old. Equal parts sensitive artist and brave sailor, Simon keeps a scrapbook of the war and is kind to the town outcast, a vet who has come back mentally damaged.
The dual plot lines are compelling and well-rendered. How Angus tracks down his brother-in-law and discovers what happened to him is fast-paced, page-turning stuff, while the co-evolution of Angus and Simon's personalities from sentient artist to self-protecting cynic is subtle and pulls on heartstrings. While Simon navigates a friendship with an ostracized German immigrant who teaches him to read "The Iliad," appreciate butterflies and take notes on life — all as "a way of being in this world" — his father, an ocean away, is cursed by that same mindfulness, observing the ridge at Vimy as "a menacing man-made monster — its teeth, three parallel lines of twisting trenches lined with rifles and bayonets."
Such attentiveness can ruin a man in war, and it almost ruins Angus, who returns, as Simon puts it, "an empty husk." Unrecognizable to each other, father and son ultimately find their way back, and how Duffy accomplishes this is a beautiful ending for a beautiful novel.
Christine Brunkhorst is a writer and book critic in Minneapolis.