Margaret, a sculptor, has been hired by a museum to build a life-sized model of Lucy, mankind’s ancestral link to the primitive world. Meanwhile, her life is in complete disarray: her marriage has ended, her finances are a mess, and her health is suffering. Overwhelmed with the sense that she is withering away both spiritually and physically, she escapes into work and into Lucy’s world. The gradual process of reconstructing her human ancestor forces Margaret to explore fundamental questions about evolution, the human condition, and her own troubled and perplexing life. Crossing boundaries of space and time to create an exact replica -- bone by bone, muscle by muscle -- she finds herself embarking upon an emotional journey that is tumultuous and perplexing, heartwarming and joyous.


"Casper avoids easy answers and writes bravely about our need to place ourselves in history in order to make sense of our existence."

- Publishers Weekly

"Casper's bleak but compelling debut - an unusual, unprettified, and ultimately haunting character portrait."

- Kirkus Reviews

"A resonant first novel, rich with literary parallels and allusions, this isdistinguished by Casper’s crisp, sometimes lyrical prose and fine characterizations andis—like the work of the reconstruction itself—supremely satisfying."

- Michele Leber, Booklist

"What might have proved galumphingly schematic material becomes a springboard for Casper’s ferocious wit. Her observations of her heroine’s willful decent into primitive eccentricity are deft, her evocation of creative and academic obsession a delight, and her eventual award of hard-won happiness believable rather than pat. All in all, this is a sparkler of a first novel."

- The Independent


Publishers Weekly

November 11, 1996

In her richly suggestive and assured debut novel, Canadian writer Casper takes on the daunting task of depicting emotional loss, historicity and anatomical restoration—and she acquits herself with distinction. Sculptor Margaret Fisher slips into a protective cocoon of listless sleep and lurid dreams when her marriage of 10 years breaks up. The dangerous depth of her loss, she realizes, arises less from the departure of her husband than from the disturbing realization that the union had been loveless and shored up only by comfort and inertia. Financially and emotionally shaken (and plagued by extensive emergency dental work), Margaret plunges into a new project for a display of primitive humanity at the National Museum, the full-body reconstruction of an Australopithecus afarensis, based on the famous fossil “Lucy.” She draws her inspiration from the fossilized footprints of male and female hominids that were embedded in volcanic ash over three million years ago in Africa. A slight twist in the female’s gait suggests that she hesitated in order to look over her shoulder—at what we will never be sure—before being crushed by the volcanic eruption. In a dreamlike, intense state of waking dreams and reveries, isolation and reflection, Margaret begins to feel the stirrings of Lucy’s primordial steps within herself. Her slow reconstruction of the model brings unexpected questions and truths to light. Casper avoids easy answers and writes bravely about our need to place ourselves in history in order to make sense of our existence.

The New York Times

March 2, 1997
Review by Sally Eckhoff

The protagonist of Claudia Casper’s first novel is a sculptor named Margaret who’s having trouble with both her marriage and her teeth. Margaret thinks she’s falling apart, but she’s saved when she gets a job building a life-size museum model of Lucy, the Australopithecine ancestral woman. As Margaret assembles casts of Lucy’s bones, the vital core in her own personality begins to emerge from its nest of insecurities. Margaret cuts loose, and all things are new again. “The Reconstruction” is a probing book that avoids many of the clichés of female self-discovery: the dogged, neurotic sculptor is an unusual study, as are the nerdy male paleontologists who help her.

Kirkus Reviews

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.


Review by Michele Leber

Thirty-one year old sculptor Margaret Fisher is frozen in a state of crisis. Her 10-year marriage (unsatisfactory though it was) has ended; her teeth (the most permanent part of her physical self) are suddenly decaying, and she lacks insurance for extensive dental work; and her current project is late and badly done. Her salvation is a commission from a museum to create a reconstruction of a female Australopithecus afarensis (the same species as Lucy) as it was caught in time three and a half million years ago. The serendipitous reappearance of a former lover and the delivery of a box from her late mother help Margaret understand her heritage and get on with her life, but it is primarily her work that frees her from her paralysis and enables her to begin sculpting again. A resonant first novel, rich with literary parallels and allusions, this is distinguished by Casper’s crisp, sometimes lyrical prose and fine characterizations and is—like the work of the reconstruction itself—supremely satisfying.

The Independent

December 12, 1997

The reconstruction referred to in Claudia Casper’s title is manifold. Most obviously, the novel spans the time it takes her heroine, Margaret, to research, design and construct a scale model of Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis fossil which disproved the theory that our primate ancestors became bipedal as a result of developing a larger brain. Then there is the extensive repair of Margaret’s long-neglected teeth by a hand-rubbing dentist. Her frosty doctor husband has walked out on her before the novel begins, and during the narrative she goes over and over her marriage’s failure as a detective might reconstruct the known events leading up to a violent crime.

Lastly, all these reconstructions feed into the novel’s emotional core: the piecemeal rebuilding of Margaret’s self-respect and capacity to enjoy life. The dentistry literally restores her smile. The construction of Lucy—a kind of primal parent—and a gradually acquired understanding of the sad fate of her own mother enable Margaret to tap wells of female strength in order to triumph.

What might have proved galumphingly schematic material becomes a springboard for Casper’s ferocious wit. Her observations of her heroine’s willful decent into primitive eccentricity are deft, her evocation of creative and academic obsession a delight, and her eventual award of hard-won happiness believable rather than pat. All in all, this is a sparkler of a first novel.

The Observer

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.

The Globe and Mail

May 10, 1997

It’s easy to see why this first novel by Vancouver writer Claudia Casper was the subject of a heated bidding war before Penguin snatched it up and published it last year. The writing is beautiful, with passages of dazzling poetic intensity on nearly every page. Margaret, the central character, is a thirty-something sculptor whose cold, controlling doctor-husband has just left her. Her finances are in a shambles and even her teeth are a mess. She is hired by a curator at the local museum to “reconstruct” a life-sized model of Lucy, the three-million-year-old female Australopithecus afarensis whose bones were discovered in Africa. Margaret retreats to her studio, cutting off nearly all contact with the outside world. Beginning with casts of Lucy’s bones, she works outward, adding muscle, blood vessels, skin and hair. Casper effortlessly folds in surreal resonances and literary, artistic and scientific references as Margaret works and reflects on her own life and her miserable marriage, and—after months of compulsive work and fever dreams—ultimately finds the resources to put her life back on track.


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.

The Financial Post

June 1, 1996
Review by Allan Hepburn

Bones. Muscle. Tendons. Teeth. Organs. Eyes. Ears. Skin. Piece by anatomical piece, The Reconstruction puts together the body of a female Australopithecus afarensisfrom the inside-out.

Margaret Fisher, a sculptor, is hired to create a museum display of the three-million-year-old primate known in archeological and anthropological circles as Lucy. Using only a few fossilized footprints, some bones and teeth, Margaret has to invent a convincing model of Lucy, the hairy forerunner of modern Homo sapiens.

The creation of Lucy parallels the reconstruction of a life and an identity for Margaret, whose husband, John, has moved out after 10 years of unsatisfactory marriage. By the end of their marriage, John couldn’t bear to touch or be touched by Margaret. In the face of loss, Lucy becomes the tangible sign of Margaret’s reconstituted life.

This novel soars with moments of lyric intensity. It combines Margaret’s dreams with manic spells of work and reveries about the day-to-day life of Lucy. As she works, Margaret daydreams about Lucy crouching on the bank of a stream, or walking under falling flakes of volcanic ash.

Occasionally The Reconstruction reads like an episode from Alice in Wonderlandbecause it dwells so much on imaginative acts and creative fantasies. Margaret worries about her body, her size, her awkwardness, in just the same way Alice shrinks, expands, frets and fantasizes after she falls down the rabbit hole.

The doubling of Margaret’s life with Lucy’s allows Margaret to speculate on all the things she has lost: her husband, her mother, her former lover. It allows her to speculate, most of all, on her own body. As Margaret insists to various listeners, “The ability to walk erect had evolved before a bigger brain, and that it was our bodies and not our brains, that precipitated our humanness.”

The Reconstruction begins with Margaret in a dentist’s chair, having her decayed teeth fixed. With two words, Casper conveys Margaret’s dread of the body and its many little betrayals, those two words that no one ever likes to hear from a dentist, “Wider please.”

Given over to diseases and imperfections, the human body has a life of its own. It is subject to “rattling mucus in the chest, the clammy pungent smell of genitals, ear wax, ragged skin near the cuticles, pimples on the buttocks.”

The human body might be disgusting, but it is also joyous. As an exploration of the senses and the sensations felt along the nerve ends of the body, The Reconstruction has no rival. It gives itself over wholeheartedly to sensual specificity.

In deft descriptions, Casper evokes the oozy smell of decay that erupts from mouths when the dentist probes beneath the gums. She describes the shock of cold dew on feet still warm from bed. She conjures up the super-saturated colors of dreams. As Margaret proves over and over again, there is nothing more satisfying than to live in a sensual world or to live inside a feeling body.

As she works on the museum model, Margaret merges with Lucy, to the point where feels she carries the primate within her. When she completes the model, after weeks of exhausting, painstaking labor, she fears she might lose her connection to the sculpted life she has created.

To preserve her sense of continuity with the remote past and with Lucy, she takes a sheet from the linen closet, spreads the fossils of Lucy’s skeleton, one by one, in their proper relationship on the sheet, then lies down beside them and sleeps. This astonishing image tells us everything we need to know about the empathy between creator and model, present and past.

As her work progresses, Margaret begins an affair with a man who finds her sexually appealing. She cleans up part of her junk-ridden garage. She comes to terms with her mother’s death, which occurred years before, but which left her with a sense of betrayal and irreparable loss.

The Reconstruction is worth its price, if only for the smart asides that Margaret makes while sculpting and gluing. “Part of the pleasure in going to the zoo,” she thinks, “is seeing our predators in cages.”

These asides flash with wit. While deciding on how to convey emotion and gesture in her Lucy sculpture, she speculates on the origins of crying. “She wondered whether Lucy cried. She didn’t think so. When did crying first appear? Why had natural selection favored it? Did it startle predators? Or did it make aggressors of the same species back off, thus giving an advantage within the species?” Speculations like these show an active intelligence, the kind that comes from looking at the world seriously. The Reconstruction shows how much intelligence goes into acts of imaginative creation and re-creation.

The Vancouver Sun

Review by George McWhirter

An extremely fixed and clear idea, with such a singular structure and definite deadline for the conclusion of the work (the opening of the exhibit) could make this first novel altogether too mechanical. We might hear the clock tick off the check-marks for each stage completed—skeleton, organs, face, nose, mouth and eyes. Suspense could turn to deja-vu.

And indeed The Reconstruction is like a very good watch, with the difference that it is fastened to Margaret Fisher’s pulse. What puts the novel’s outcomes beyond predicting is Margaret’s heart, which beats truly, both in the present and prehistoric, in the wild tangles of her own neglected garden and the savannah grasses of Lucy’s Africa.

The richness and sensuality of Margaret’s thoughts and the poise and beauty of the language in this book keep it moving and prevent the manufactured parts from showing through. In this respect Claudia Casper’s novel is as successful as the model Margaret Fisher finishes on time for the opening.

In comparing human behaviour with the orangutang’s Margaret comes up with this insight: in place of the orangutangs picking through each other’s fur for fleas, we pick through each other’s conversations for gossip to chew on—the flaws, foibles and felicities. “Language is grooming,” Margaret muses, and the muse is right. That’s what we do. So much of this book is true. And the excitement lies in Margaret finding what we do and don’t know about ourselves as well as Margaret.

The Times Literary Supplement

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.

The Edmonton Journal

April 14, 1996
Review by Gordon Morash

Joni Mitchell wasn’t the only creative writer ecstatic about her win of two Grammys in March. Mitchell has for years been a role model for Claudia Casper, a Vancouver author whose first novel The Reconstruction (Viking 259 pp $27.99) was recently published amid high media interest. Casper chose the audacious approach of setting up her own literary auction.

“It was so beautiful,” she says of Mitchell’s appearance on the awards show. “I read in the paper the next day that she said she was thinking of giving up music, and now she was happy she hadn’t, and it meant a lot to her.”

In fact, there is a mention of Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue in The Reconstruction. Casper says that Mitchell’s work and status as an artist have shown her a quality of womanliness that is key to her own struggles as a writer.

“There’s an essential side to her. She’s not dogmatic at all, at the same time being compassionate. She gets that perfect balance of not approaching the world as a victim, but being able to acknowledge suffering.”

By now, Casper’s success has been of those oft-told tales. Without using an agent, the 39-year-old—and hitherto unknown—author sent a one-page outline to seven major Canadian publishing houses. Vancouver’s Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto’s Random House, and Penguin Books responded favourably and the auction was on.

In the early days, when readers were hearing only about the novelty of Casper’s approach to publishers, there was a very good chance that The Reconstruction, the novel, would be overwhelmed by The Construction, the art of the literary deal.

“I worried too, about that story so early in the publicity. But I guess that’s the publishing industry.”

In fact, Penguin Books rushed the classily produced Mylar-jacketed book to shops and reviewers and placed an eight-months’ pregnant Casper on the promotion trail.

She had a boy late last month. “He came 10 days early which was considerate of him, and we named him George Solomon after all kings.”

But back to The Reconstruction. When a book is given a strong promotional shove, there are always concerns as to whether the book will match the hoopla.

The Reconstruction is a fine first novel, regardless of the hoopla, and Casper is no overnight sensation. The book has been fives years in the writing and she took the unusual approach out of both pride and what to her seemed common sense. “I thought that it was harder to get an agent than a publisher. By the time I’d had three responses, I hadn’t even looked into agents.”

The Reconstruction tells the story of Margaret Fisher, a newly divorced sculptor skirting the edge of depression and madness as she builds a life-sized model of a 3.2 million-year-old female primate, Australopithecus afarensis, first unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974.

The story has fact as its base via Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey’s Lucy: The Beginnings of Human Kind. Inspired by the story, Casper applied for a Canada Council Explorations grant, failed once, and then won the award on a second go-round.

“I think when I finished reading that book, I had a sense of frustration. I wanted to know more about Lucy and who she was, and I wanted to spend time thinking about what that relationship was between the two, the fact that even after 3 million years, they’re very connected.

“What I discovered along the way was that evolution was a modern creation, in that when you read about evolution, the language will be laden with mythological terms that are really not scientific at all.”

Margaret calls her model Lucy and the book forms one giant metaphor. As she constructs her forebear from clay, she is in fact rebuilding her own life, at times, breathing figurative and literal life into the model.

“When I reconstruct an arm or a leg, or a part of her face, I feel reverberations in my own body,” Margaret says. “I think about her all the time, wondering what it felt like to be her, how the world looked through her eyes.”

She not only makes the creative leap to breathing, but is certain she can hear the model speak to her within the context of the museum’s diorama in which the model will appear.

The lips were slightly parted and the tips of the reconstruction’s teeth showed. Margaret felt the heat of its breath passing out between them, leaving a thin film of moisture that quickly evaporated in the heat. The breath smelled of fruit being broken down, fermented and rotting molecules, the stink of living made warm and moist in the lungs. She breathed in. Hot dusty air carried the taste of ash into her mouth.”

When confronted with such a plot, many first-time authors seeking maximum impact will take the lead character right over the edge to sublime, total madness. But Casper chose not to do that with Margaret.

“I never wanted to carry her past madness. What I was interested in exploring in the book was the relationship between a modern woman and Lucy. If I had carried it into madness, then it would have been about madness, not about the relationship.”

Coupled with that relationship is a study of the artist at the breaking point, an examination of the elements of depression, obsession and solitude.

“And I think solitude is the crucible. If you spend a lot of time alone, working within your imagination, your relationship to the external world becomes hard. It’s hard to resurface. You’re enclosed in it; part of you wants to go back out into the world and part of you feels very very reluctant.”

There is one scene, however, that goes the existential distance and brings Casper’s Margaret to what seems to be the very edge. After an evening of drinking, and on the street outside the bar, Margaret displays a chimpanzee “pant-hoot” in the presence of a man she tries to impress… just before she vomits what seems to be everything in the universe.

“I’d gone to hear Jane Goodall speak in Vancouver and at the end of her lecture she let out this chimpanzee hoot, and it was electrifying. All the little hairs on the back of your neck were standing up, which is very primate. It just penetrated very deeply.”

What’s not rooted in fact, though, is the image of Casper as Margaret. “I have gone through a divorce, but Margaret is not me.”

The book has been a success almost from the day it was published. It sits among the top five titles in the national best-seller list.

As well, this week she received word that the American edition will appear in January 1997 under the Bob Wyatt Books imprint at New York’s St. Martin’s Press.

“I’m also getting positive response from England about it,” she adds.

The Vancouver Review

Spring 1996
Review by Steven Ward

Claudia Casper’s first novel, The Reconstruction—which is about a sculptor who builds a detailed model of an ancestral human based on fossil bones—met with an unusual response from publishers: several wanted to print it right away, and a bidding war erupted. When Penguin Canada won, they chose to wrap the book in a clear plastic cover in a chi-chi attempt to present a pictorial version of the contents. It’s like reading a heavily packaged food product. Rest assured the cover jacket is the most troublesome aspect of this novel. Casper’s explorations of evolution and life’s details transcend the clumsy packaging. [My note: I disagree intensely. The cover was beautiful.—CC]

You might think that trying to explain our personal lives in terms of the evolution could only lead to the conclusion that we are absolutely insignificant players in the great scheme of universal development. Even to grasp, in any real sense, the idea that I am descended from a serious of apes-becoming-human demands a cognitive contortion perhaps more difficult than the leap into religious faith. In its most elementary principles, evolution is simple enough to understand, but the fact is I have never felt any active emotional link to my hairy ancestors. Claudia Casper has changed all that.

In 1974 paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson found the “Lucy” skeleton, a 3.2 million-year-old example of the first apes who walked on two legs. Casper’s The Reconstruction draws these bones into the intimate present. The vast and fragmentary story of human evolution becomes the background for Casper’s story of two individuals: the unsuspecting Australopithecus afarensis Lucy, and the recently divorced Margaret, a sculptor commissioned to create a detailed model of Lucy from casts of the fossils.

In The Reconstruction, Margaret finds herself spanning the millions of years between herself and this first hominid. Lucy comes to haunt her, instigating Margaret’s own transformation from fossil to living being. When we join her she is only bones, about to begin the personal reconstruction following her divorce. It is a familiar theme, involving the excavation of personal history, renewed contact with lost values, and the subsequent creation of an autonomous self no longer dependent on outside structures for support. The result is predictable but the process is satisfying. Rather than merely leading us through Margaret’s journey of self-discovery, Casper’s writing captures moments before they can pass away and by doing so saves the reader from Margaret’s own malady, in which “the present moment fell continuously away before her and devoured her puny impulses before a decision to act even formed.”

As Margaret becomes more absorbed with the reconstruction of Lucy she begins to feel ghostly connections with her predecessor. This imagined relationship with her vision of Lucy becomes the driving force behind her personal redevelopment. Although evolution, both of the species and of the individual, permeates this novel, Casper’s attention to the moment deliberately disrupts the linear processes of development in order to dwell on palpable details. While Margaret despairs, Casper described the details of her condition, layering minute observations and emphasizing the uncertain significance of “small things”. Often, I found myself almost drowning in this precise description, which seemed to sacrifice vivid effect for repetition. The first quarter of the book produced a kind of trance; it left me caught in a static mosaic of stark dreams and morbidly detailed moments—which is, of course, precisely what Margaret is experiencing.

Eventually, Margaret, like Lucy, lurches to her feet. She throws herself headlong into the reconstruction. The layers of detail and metaphor become more interesting and essential. Connections are made across millions of years as Casper reveals the possibilities of contact between humans and their forebears. It is these connections, Margaret finds, that allow us to locate ourselves as individuals, and it is these connections which provide the impetus for continued development. Perhaps the writing sometimes tries too hard to summon these delicate links of timelessness and wonder, but in the end Casper’s ability to fill particular moments with significance—to focus the reader on the necessary details—reveals the power and significance of Margaret’s growing connection to Lucy.

Casper portrays Margaret through the scattering of details and the forming of subtle connections, and Margaret develops as she comes into contact with her own body—with her own sensuality, growth, and decay: her evolution is haphazard and intense. We are reminded that evolution is no certainty, but occurs in fits and starts, with numerous dead ends and long periods of stasis. We are reminded that the current state of human evolution requires our personal adjustments to continue. Casper shows that growth happens only in moments of real consciousness, in the pauses wherein we question our place and role in the timeline of humanity. It is in the midst of such a pause that Margaret finally sculpts Lucy:

“What she wanted was to sculpt a face that in some way showed a human female and Lucy like palimpsests of each other. She wanted to sculpt a human female and make her face melt into Lucy’s features, to reveal concretely, explicitly, the genetic echo Margaret was beginning to feel in her own cells, her own muscles, in the small movements of her face.”

In Casper’s vision we are momentarily beings, inexorably linked to our decaying bodies. Lucy pauses in the savanna with a portent of her imminent death, but in that same moment she enters the eternal. In the moment lies the autonomy of the individual: “Everything will conspire to keep you from listening. It’s not easy. I’m not asking you to do the easy thing. Listen. Listen. Listen.”

Casper took what could have been just another story of personal growth and tied it to the great and speculative story of human evolution, neither reducing the personal story to insignificance, nor exalting it unnecessarily. By connecting Lucy (and thus the entire spectrum of our evolutionary ancestors) to the life of the individual, Casper caused me to consider that it is not DNA that binds us to our ancestors so much as shared experience; a common anxiety and curiosity bridging millions of years.

The Reconstruction manifests in me now as a single image: Lucy pausing to listen, superimposed through time and space on the awakening of Margaret’s curiosity. In the face of decay, only the pause can stop time—the link which, when noticed, locates us in time and in the world. The Reconstruction, as it turns out, is a wonderful exploration into this sort of momentary anthropology, and certainly worth the effort of a pause from readers.

The Sunday Oregonian

January 29, 1997
Review by Jeff Baker

Casper, a young writer from Vancouver, British Columbia, conducted her own auction for Canadian rights to this, her first novel. The daring move paid off with an offer from Penguin Books in Toronto, excellent reviews from Canada and eventual publication in the United States. “The Reconstruction” lives up to the fuss and sets Casper up as one of the brightest new literary talents in Canada. It is a multilayered story about a depressed sculptor who needs major dental surgery at the same time she is hired by a museum to build a model of Lucy, the “missing link” between man and primate. The lives of the sculptor and Lucy overlap in clever ways and raise questions about evolution, for one person and all mankind.