The Reconstruction

by Claudia Casper,
256 pages,
ISBN: 0670866970

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First Novels - Dentistry for Primates
by Eva Tihanyi

When a book comes as heavily hyped as Claudia Casper's Reconstruction (Penguin, 259 pages, $27.99 cloth), one tends to approach it with equal measures of skepticism and expectation. Fortunately, in this case, it is the expectation that is warranted.

The plot itself is rather a simple one. Margaret Fisher, a sculptor in her early thirties, has recently separated from her doctor husband, "a garrison soul, hoarding itself." She is depressed and in debt, requires extensive dental work that she can't afford. Luckily, the local museum hires her to construct a life-model of Lucy, the hominid whose fossilized skeleton and footprints, discovered in Africa, are humankind's link to the other primates in the evolutionary chain.

Casper weaves these three strands-physical, artistic, and psychological-into the reconstruction of Margaret herself. Margaret wants to "recreate herself slowly, cleanly, privately." She wants "to reshape herself in the emotionally hygienic solitude of her cocoon," so she cuts herself off from friends, retreats into her studio, and layer by layer reconstructs Lucy and, in the process, herself. As she works, she feels Lucy within her, connects with Lucy's primalness, her unevolved human essence. She also analyses her failed marriage, and realizes she's been hibernating emotionally for most of her life. She ruminates on her mother's dying, on the facts of birth and death as parentheses: "The only question is what lies between now and death, now and extinction. The present and the present and the present." She ponders the importance of the body, how we are literally "embodied" by our bodies, which ground us, root us in the reality of sensory experience. As the weeks pass and Lucy's reconstruction progresses, so too does Margaret's healing. By the end of the book she has embarked on a new love affair.

What's most striking about the novel overall is its emotional maturity, its perceptiveness, the way it looks unflinchingly at the often messy condition of being human. And Casper certainly shows mastery in the writing itself. There are many passages worth re-reading simply because of how well they're written.

If the book has a flaw, it is its unrelenting self-absorption. And it is introverted, slow-moving, and decidedly serious. But then so is the process of reconstruction.


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