The Independent: The Reconstruction

June 9, 2011

December 12, 1997

The reconstruction referred to in Claudia Casper’s title is manifold. Most obviously, the novel spans the time it takes her heroine, Margaret, to research, design and construct a scale model of Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis fossil which disproved the theory that our primate ancestors became bipedal as a result of developing a larger brain. Then there is the extensive repair of Margaret’s long-neglected teeth by a hand-rubbing dentist. Her frosty doctor husband has walked out on her before the novel begins, and during the narrative she goes over and over her marriage’s failure as a detective might reconstruct the known events leading up to a violent crime.

Lastly, all these reconstructions feed into the novel’s emotional core: the piecemeal rebuilding of Margaret’s self-respect and capacity to enjoy life. The dentistry literally restores her smile. The construction of Lucy—a kind of primal parent—and a gradually acquired understanding of the sad fate of her own mother enable Margaret to tap wells of female strength in order to triumph.

What might have proved galumphingly schematic material becomes a springboard for Casper’s ferocious wit. Her observations of her heroine’s willful decent into primitive eccentricity are deft, her evocation of creative and academic obsession a delight, and her eventual award of hard-won happiness believable rather than pat. All in all, this is a sparkler of a first novel.