The Observer

June 9, 2011

January 4, 1998

Review by Christina Patterson

There’s pain, despair and isolation aplenty in Claudia Casper’s The Reconstruction (Quartet, 10 pounds, pp.  259) but the response to it is, as might be expected of a Canadian, a little less destructive. Sculptor Margaret’s marriage to John, who’d ‘had sex with her once a month, out of duty, with soft, desireless caresses’, has broken up and she is left with a sense of overwhelming grief, excruciating toothache and terrifying dental bills. ‘Extraordinary stress can cause this kind of sudden decay,’ the dentist tells her kindly, but even he is a little embarrassed when her tears don’t stop.

Between trips to the dentist, she muses on her marriage and grapples with the clichés of loss. Luckily, she is offered the most challenging commission of her career—to construct a life-size model of ‘Lucy’, mankind’s link to the primate world—and is soon obsessed with ‘what it felt like to be her’. She ‘found her face exploring a chimpanzee sneer’ and even, when the sounds of traffic and lawnmowers allow, ‘practiced pant-hoot and screams’. As Lucy begins to take shape, Margaret has glimpses of answers to some of her anguished questions, but concludes that: ‘Ecclesiastes was right… meaning, like love in the purest sense, can exist only when you don’t need it.’

The reconstruction takes place at a number of different levels: the physical reconstruction of Lucy and of Margaret’s teeth and the metaphorical reconstruction of her life after grief and of a world-view that allows her to interpret past relationships and events very differently. The strands are elegantly woven in prose that combines strength and precision with great lightness of touch. There are occasional excesses, but the central evolutionary metaphor proves an excellent vehicle for a tale that is individually absorbing and which effectively carries much wider and more primeval resonances.