The Times Literary Supplement

June 9, 2011

November 28, 1997

Review by Nicholas Clee

This Canadian first novel opens with the words “Wider please”. Margaret, the thirty-one-year-old heroine, is in the dentist’s chair, imagining what he sees: “particles of food being broken down by saliva; coffee stains near the gum line; fillings and caps and root canals that gave her a dental history unique enough to identify her body should she be disfigured in death”. As the dentist explores her decayed teeth, she recalls a brief love affair, a collapsed marriage and a troubled relationship with her mother. A woman Margaret sees through the window of the bus-stop is clearly miserable too, unable to prevent a sudden expression of anguish from disfiguring her features. The dentist tells Margaret she will need root-canal work, caps and extractions costing $5,000. “‘Extraordinary stress can cause this kind of sudden decay,’ he said kindly, perhaps inquisitively.”

The reader may recognize a familiar fictional template. A woman is undergoing a crisis. The promise of dental regeneration hints that she will progress towards a recovery. There is, too, that former lover to consider; it is a fair bet that he will soon reappear. Margaret’s tentative imagining of the dentist’s view of her suggests that The Reconstruction will be written with some subtlety; the dental metaphor, the depressed woman and the shifting gears as flashbacks occur are less promising elements of this opening scene.

Margaret’s teeth are not the only things being reconstructed. A sculptor, she is commissioned by a natural history museum to create a reproduction of a female Australopithecus afarensis—the species of the creature nicknamed “Lucy”. Ah yes, she tells the chief of exhibits: the fossil found in Ethiopia by Donald Johanson. The creature, named after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, walked erect, but had a brain that was not much bigger than a chimpanzee’s. “That’s right,” he replies.

There are other awkward passages in the novel. A television news bulletin, which begins with the improbably apology, “We’re sad to announce,” tells of the death in an aquarium of a baby killer whale, which was unnamed, so that children would not become too attached to it. Love is like that, muses Margaret, before whom animals tend to perform symbolically. Her garden fork severs a worm, which writhes, “frantically searching for the rest of itself”. Margaret’s former husband also comes to mind when she feeds a neighbourhood cat: “she tried to do that to him—domesticate him so she could feel sure he wasn’t an enemy”. She had wanted John not for his own qualities, but to satisfy her own needs. The dilemma is acted out for her in a car caught behind her in traffic; a fat woman offers a thin man a chocolate bar, which he refuses, thus declining to save her from herself.

The novel has an integrity that survives, is even emphasized by, Casper’s occasional awkwardness. The immediacy of her writing disarms criticism. Symbolic animals have their own lives, and metaphorical ones are deployed wittily: “He began bobbing from side to side behind Margaret like a sheepdog trying to herd her up the stairs.” The author has, one feels, imagined this story, rather than calling on the formulas of the woman-in-crisis genre.

As Margaret absorbs herself in her work, she becomes increasingly reclusive. The same clothes are worn day after day, dishes pile up, dust accumulates. But her fascination with Lucy starts to make her feel less isolated; she senses a connection which alleviates her terror of decay and death. Having completed her commission, she receives a gift that her late mother had wanted saved for her: a box containing, among other mementos, five of her milk teeth, for which she feels “the same awe as for a millions-of-year-old fossil”. In this mood of acceptance, she is reunited with her former lover. There are no unexpected twists here, but there is enough absorbing writing during the course of the novel to arouse interest in Claudia Casper’s future.