PBS newsman MacNeil's first novel is about sex and war and love and loyalty and civic calamity in early 20th-century Halifax. It's intelligent, balanced, polished, and reasonable as you might expect; the high artistry is a very pleasant surprise. In the middle of WW I, as the citizens of Halifax, Nova Scotia, struggle to keep faith in King and empire despite disproportionate casualties among Canadian troops, there is a domestic disaster on the scale of the San Francisco earthquake or the Chicago fire: A French ship loaded with munitions and fuel catches fire and explodes, leveling the north end of the city. In the ensuing confusion the diary of Julia Robertson, a beautiful young matron, falls into the hands of Peter Wentworth, an ambitious Anglican clergyman, who reads the book through and becomes obsessed with the writer without, at first, knowing who she is. Julia, whose army officer husband has been two years at the front, has set down explicitly her sexual history and feelings. The diary and the disaster combine to do serious damage to all of Peter's careful constructions of faith and honor. He passes the book to his boyhood friend Stewart MacPherson, a budding Freudian analyst, who becomes every bit as interested in the author as Peter but in a much healthier way. Before things sort themselves out, Stewart has a go at straightening out a shell-shocked soldier; Peter's marriage nearly disintegrates and his career skyrockets; and Julia copes with her husband's heroic death and last disturbing letters. A very sharp examination of a bitter time in a modest place. MacNeil writes wonderfully well and has a great deal to say about intelligent, middle-class people trying to sort things out in the face of calamity.