Kirkus Reviews: Starred Review, The Reconstruction

June 9, 2011

November 1, 1996

Vancouver writer Casper’s bleak but compelling debut depicts a sculptor’s breakdown and recovery while she is constructing a model of a human ancestor.

It’s a bad time for Margaret. Her husband has just left her. She scorns her current project (building a giant hummingbird for an aviary gift shop) but desperately needs the money. She takes to her bed, unplugs her phone, and muffs the hummingbird job. Salvation comes when she’s hired by the local naturally history museum to construct a replica of a female Australopithecus afarensis, an early human ancestor whose brain was not much bigger than a chimp’s. Soon, her wooden ex-husband is forgotten as Margaret attempts not only to find a shape and posture for her creature, but also to imagine herself back in its world. She starts seeing her colleagues as apes, their behavior at meetings as dominance displays, their language merely a replacement for grooming. Somehow freed by these musings, she’s soon working on her own sculpture for the first time in three years, dealing with painful memories of her mother’s death, and amusing herself by striding ape-style down empty streets. Under pressure from museum officials, she shows up for a museum fund-raising event at about the same time, and after chatting up donors, she and some friends go to a jazz club. There, playing the saxophone, is Philip, the object of Margaret’s erotic fixation—a man with whom she’d had a one-night stand in the dying days of her marriage. Philip is captivated, particularly by a desolate chimp-hoot Margaret makes when they finally stumble out of the club, and Margaret’s reconnection with the human world begins. Casper wisely downplays the metaphors here, so they never detract from Margaret’s believability. She’s a fierce and damaged woman, with imaginative gifts that give birth to some odd and entirely convincing moments of self-discovery.

An unusual, unprettified, and ultimately haunting character portrait.