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Novel set in Nova Scotia and France (the author is a ‘real discovery’)

11th June 2014

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P S Duffy: a WW1 Novel set in Nova Scotia and France.

IMG_1653P S Duffy is a real discovery. This is her first novel, but it reads as if she has had a lifetime of writing experience behind her. Her ancestors settled in Nova Scotia in the 1750’s, and she has spent over thirty summers sailing there. She clearly knows the people and the area extremely well. The descriptions of the fishing community of Snag Harbour (an imaginary location…) are vivid and lifelike.

It is 1915 and war fever is gripping Canada. Ebbin, despite the pacifist feelings of his father-in-law, signs up and heads for Europe – carried away by the promise of adventure and the prospect of a short campaign. Ten months later his letters home stop and he is listed as MIA. His brother-in-law, Angus, joins the army and travels to Europe to find him or what has happened to him. He is a fine artist and the intention is that he will be based in London as a cartographer – constructing maps from photographs. But he gets transferred to the infantry before he has a chance to start, and is sent to France.

The construct of the book is that the story then develops through alternate chapters. One chapter describing the events and people of Snag Harbour, the next describing the events and people on The Front. Snag Harbour shows the idealistic view of war – collections by the community to provide ‘treats’ for the war horses – who were in fact dying of exhaustion on the battlefield. I have no doubt that the events described in Nova Scotia are basically true and a fair reflection of how the war was generally seen from so far away. An internment camp was set up for ‘German sympathisers’ and Mr Heist, a local and much respected school teacher – but of German origin and accent – was sent away to it. Prejudice and fear reigned. Pretty much only Simon, Angus’ son, supported Mr Heist…

The alternate chapter descriptions of the Front are very well researched, and convey – in a totally non sentimental way – the absolute horror of war and life in the trenches. The descriptions of events are stark and brutal, but pick up well on the camaraderie and black humour of the troops. One chapter is devoted to the Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge by Arras – a battle in which tens of thousands died in quite horrific circumstances. By contrast it is reported in the Nova Scotia newspapers as a great and glorious victory for ‘our boys’. Angus is eventually wounded (bayonetted though his shoulder…) and after months of hospitalisation and recuperation is repatriated to Nova Scotia to pick up with his family. Not an altogether easy reunion.

At one level The Cartographer of No Man’s Land is a story of war and those that are left behind. At another it is the story of families, and how they grow up and change. Hettie (Angus’ wife and Ebbin’s sister) takes over the family business in the absence of her husband and the failing health of her father-in-law. Simon spends a formative and traumatic two years of his life without his father – and grows into a man. Angus himself comes back from France a very different person than the one who left to look for Ebbin.

And, yes, Angus does find out what happened to Ebbin – but that would definitively be a ‘spoiler’.

A book I really enjoyed. I have read a fair amount of WW1 literature, and this stands with the best of them. Plus the dimension of Nova Scotia adds a great deal to the story. P S Duffy is quite definitely an author to watch for the future…

Tony for the TripFiction Team

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