The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P S Duffy

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The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P S Duffy

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A touching story based on the Canadian experience of the WWI trenches of 1917. Horrific and brutal, gracious and gentle: a tale of extremes and riveting throughout.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: May 2014
Publisher: Myrmidon Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1905802982

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Canadian sailing boat captain Angus McGrath joins the army in 1917 as a cartographer. However, the cosy London war offices are full of map makers and artists and what's more the career choice is a luxury when the high mortality rates at the front means the infantry needs constant replenishment. Angus therefore finds himself in France as a 1st lieutenant in the Canada Corps. Meanwhile his family continue their life in the small fishing village back home in Nova Scotia, his wife worrying about her brother who has been declared missing in action. Angus is ideally placed to look for him but there are also other things demanding his attention, staying alive being only one of them.

PS Duffy has a dual existence in the world of writing. She's developed a distinguished career writing in the neurosciences with creative writing. These creative endeavours have spanned essays, the extremely concise discipline of flash fiction, and using literary styles to create factual narratives (creative non-fiction). This, however, is her first novel and a keeper. Indeed The Cartographer… isn't just another WWI novel brought out for the centenary year, it's a bright gem in a crowded field.

Alongside the horror and brutality of the French trenches, it ripples with a mystery of equally enthralling proportions as Angus tries to discover what's happened to his brother-in-law, Ebbin. The fact that this is the Canadian forces' experience also offers us a different twist on the plethora of commemorative novels in this centennial year.

The story marches towards the battle for Vimy Ridge which resulted in four VCs on the same day for the Canadians alone, while costing over 10.6 thousand casualties among their countrymen, including over 3.5 thousand deaths. If you don't know the outcome of the engagement, I won't spoil it but, as you can imagine, it's famous in the annals of Canadian military history.

Ms Duffy is excellent at researching and knowing how and when to disseminate the information gathered. The way in which the author fills in so much factual detail while keeping the story's momentum going is no mean trick! As well as the interestingly mundane (the Canadians called British troops 'Imperials') there's the mawkishly organised. For instance, did you realise that once the war started the Empire was busily buying surrounding fields for graveyards? That shows a certain level of planning that seems to be able to predict the heavy price that would be paid in blood.

There are also some interesting moments of social commentary. Back home in Snag Harbour (based on where the author went sailing for 35 summers) we meet George, returning home injured and psychologically scarred. Through the reaction of his loved ones and others around him, he becomes our window on contemporary attitudes towards disability. He also has a secret, if anyone has the patience to listen.

There we encounter the wonderful Herr Heist, Angus's son Simon's teacher. As the name suggests he happens to be of German extraction but not Prussian; oh dear me no! I found myself guffawing as his lecture to his students on not being prejudiced becomes an inadvertent demonstration of the opposite. But there again, later I found myself nodding at his wisdom.

This is a novel of many moods and attitudes showing that even in the depths of a hellish reality there are moments punctuated by humanity. Just as, even in a peaceful community far from the fray, there are moments punctuated by personal hells.

Thank you to those at Myrmidon who provided us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If this appeals and you'd like to read more of the effect of the aftermath of the First World War on more distant parts of the Empire, we particularly recommend The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman.

Buy The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P S Duffy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P S Duffy at

Buy The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P S Duffy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P S Duffy at


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