The Financial Post

June 9, 2011

June 1, 1996

Review by Allan Hepburn

Bones. Muscle. Tendons. Teeth. Organs. Eyes. Ears. Skin. Piece by anatomical piece, The Reconstruction puts together the body of a female Australopithecus afarensis from the inside-out.

Margaret Fisher, a sculptor, is hired to create a museum display of the three-million-year-old primate known in archeological and anthropological circles as Lucy. Using only a few fossilized footprints, some bones and teeth, Margaret has to invent a convincing model of Lucy, the hairy forerunner of modern Homo sapiens.

The creation of Lucy parallels the reconstruction of a life and an identity for Margaret, whose husband, John, has moved out after 10 years of unsatisfactory marriage. By the end of their marriage, John couldn’t bear to touch or be touched by Margaret. In the face of loss, Lucy becomes the tangible sign of Margaret’s reconstituted life.

This novel soars with moments of lyric intensity. It combines Margaret’s dreams with manic spells of work and reveries about the day-to-day life of Lucy. As she works, Margaret daydreams about Lucy crouching on the bank of a stream, or walking under falling flakes of volcanic ash.

Occasionally The Reconstruction reads like an episode from Alice in Wonderland because it dwells so much on imaginative acts and creative fantasies. Margaret worries about her body, her size, her awkwardness, in just the same way Alice shrinks, expands, frets and fantasizes after she falls down the rabbit hole.

The doubling of Margaret’s life with Lucy’s allows Margaret to speculate on all the things she has lost: her husband, her mother, her former lover. It allows her to speculate, most of all, on her own body. As Margaret insists to various listeners, “The ability to walk erect had evolved before a bigger brain, and that it was our bodies and not our brains, that precipitated our humanness.”

The Reconstruction begins with Margaret in a dentist’s chair, having her decayed teeth fixed. With two words, Casper conveys Margaret’s dread of the body and its many little betrayals, those two words that no one ever likes to hear from a dentist, “Wider please.”

Given over to diseases and imperfections, the human body has a life of its own. It is subject to “rattling mucus in the chest, the clammy pungent smell of genitals, ear wax, ragged skin near the cuticles, pimples on the buttocks.”

The human body might be disgusting, but it is also joyous. As an exploration of the senses and the sensations felt along the nerve ends of the body, The Reconstruction has no rival. It gives itself over wholeheartedly to sensual specificity.

In deft descriptions, Casper evokes the oozy smell of decay that erupts from mouths when the dentist probes beneath the gums. She describes the shock of cold dew on feet still warm from bed. She conjures up the super-saturated colors of dreams. As Margaret proves over and over again, there is nothing more satisfying than to live in a sensual world or to live inside a feeling body.

As she works on the museum model, Margaret merges with Lucy, to the point where feels she carries the primate within her. When she completes the model, after weeks of exhausting, painstaking labor, she fears she might lose her connection to the sculpted life she has created.

To preserve her sense of continuity with the remote past and with Lucy, she takes a sheet from the linen closet, spreads the fossils of Lucy’s skeleton, one by one, in their proper relationship on the sheet, then lies down beside them and sleeps. This astonishing image tells us everything we need to know about the empathy between creator and model, present and past.

As her work progresses, Margaret begins an affair with a man who finds her sexually appealing. She cleans up part of her junk-ridden garage. She comes to terms with her mother’s death, which occurred years before, but which left her with a sense of betrayal and irreparable loss.

The Reconstruction is worth its price, if only for the smart asides that Margaret makes while sculpting and gluing. “Part of the pleasure in going to the zoo,” she thinks, “is seeing our predators in cages.”

These asides flash with wit. While deciding on how to convey emotion and gesture in her Lucy sculpture, she speculates on the origins of crying. “She wondered whether Lucy cried. She didn’t think so. When did crying first appear? Why had natural selection favored it? Did it startle predators? Or did it make aggressors of the same species back off, thus giving an advantage within the species?” Speculations like these show an active intelligence, the kind that comes from looking at the world seriously. The Reconstruction shows how much intelligence goes into acts of imaginative creation and re-creation.