June 9, 2011

March 25, 1996

Review by Barbara Wickens

Even before it reached bookstore shelves early this month, The Reconstruction had generated a buzz in literary circles. Not only had neophyte novelist Claudia Casper managed to find a publisher, in itself a rare enough feat, but Penguin Books Canada Ltd. had had to engage in a bidding war to get it. Heavy advance publicity, however, can be a two-edged sword. The fact that three of Canada’s largest publishers—Random House and Douglas & McIntyre, as well as Penguin—all made bids to publish the first novel of an unknown 39-year-old Vancouver woman is certainly an attention grabber. But is it possible for a novel to live up to—or live down—such hype? In the case of The Reconstruction, the answer is a resounding yes. With her story about a sculptor who examines her own shattered life while building a model of a prehistoric primate, Casper has emerged as an important new talent. And her voice is a welcome paradox; it is fresh and original, yet confident and mature.

As the novel opens, the sculptor Margaret is feeling overwhelmed by the recent break-up of her 10-year marriage to an emotionally withdrawn doctor, John. But then she gets a lucky break: the chief of exhibits of a museum commissions her to build an exact duplicate of Lucy, one of mankind’s oldest ancestors, whose remains were found in Ethiopia in 1974. The meticulous task of constructing the replica from the skeleton out provides the framework for Margaret to escape her jumbled thoughts and gradually, to piece her life back together. By the novel’s end, Margaret has regained her equilibrium.

If the plot is admittedly slight, Casper, who worked as a freelance typesetter and wrote short stories before the novel, has an evocative style. She provides one of the most vivid descriptions of an individual dealing with depression—since William Styron’s 1990 first-person account, Darkness Visible. But The Reconstruction itself is not a depressing read. Just as good friends do not abandon one another when times are tough, the reader stays with Margaret even when she lives in the same t-shirt for days on end and does not bother to answer her phone. A large part of Margaret’s appeal is that even in her misery, her imagination is startlingly vivid. “I hear a cloud releasing raindrops that impact plumply on the ground,” she muses, as she imagines herself to be Lucy walking out into the open plain in Africa. “I hear other creatures breathing. All these companions of the moment. Usually I listen only out of fear, alert for the interruption of sound that accompanies a leopard’s stealthy approach. This listening is new to me.”

Occasionally, the book provides too much scientific minutiae, with Casper naming each muscle and tendon as Margaret builds her model. But that is a minor quibble about an otherwise elegantly crafted novel, in which the main character herself sometimes gets bogged down in detail before she sees the bigger picture of her own life story. Soundly built, The Reconstruction establishes the foundation of a brilliant new literary career for Casper.