Book of the week : Sanctuary Line - Jane Urquhart

It is not a fictional location, but in Jane Urquhart’s hands, Southern Ontario has become an entire imagined world, much like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Urquhart returns once again to this literary landscape in her latest work, a melancholy history of a family of orchardists living on the north shore of Lake Erie

Narrated by 40 year old Liz Crane, the last remaining member of the Butler family,Sanctuary Line is a story of innocence lost — a value-added one at that, featuring not just one tragic love story but three. Summers at the farm are portrayed as a bucolic idyll, the time before the family’s fall and the counterpoint to the catastrophe that tears the family apart, a catastrophe ominously and persistently foreshadowed from the beginning

Liz, an entomologist, has returned to the farm to study the migration patterns of the monarch butterflies that congregate there. All she has for company now is her relatives’ dusty crockery and furniture. Home alone among the withered trees, Liz grieves the death of her cousin Mandy, killed a year earlier during a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Liz seeks refuge from the absences that have made memory a painful affair: the loss of her cousin, her uncle Stanley who disappeared 20 years ago without a trace and Teo, her first love

The main action of Sanctuary Line unfolds in the mid 1980s when Stan Butler, the family patriarch, operates a thriving orchard. Liz (the ‘summer cousin’), Stan’s niece, spends her summers at the Butler homestead, sharing secrets with her cousin Mandy, swimming in Lake Erie and acting out complicated dramas with a bevy of Butler cousins. Every summer, Mexican workers are flown in to work the farm

Stan serves as a paternal figure for the fatherless Liz. He is a progressive farmer, eager to experiment. At the same time, he treasures the traditions of the past. He regales the children with tales of generations of Butlers known as “the great-greats.” He recounts the exploits of ancestors who sailed from Ireland to North America in the 19th century; those great-greats who continued the farming tradition, and those who remained committed to operating the lighthouse. Charismatic, energetic, playful and kind, Stan is married to his elegant American second cousin. Still, he drinks too much, suffers mood swings and, when crisis strikes, disappears without trace, a mystery that haunts Liz to this day

She is haunted too by the death of her cousin Mandy, killed on active duty in Afghanistan. Much of the early part of the novel is devoted to describing the two girls’ sisterly intimacy, how they spent the long summers wrapped up in the same view of their small world. Now Liz spends her time reading the poetry books Mandy loved, and reproaching herself for not having been more sympathetic about her unhappy affair with a senior military officer. Teo, the son of one of her uncle’s Mexican farm workers and Liz’s first love, is another ghost, and their gradually unfolding teenage romance is the most tenderly handled strand of the story

Urquhart loves the inter-connectedness of things, loves Ireland, loves the shores of Ontario lakes and loves the rise and fall of family fortunes — variations of which appear in most of her six previous, highly successful novels. She also loves symbolism, provided here by the monarch butterflies. Their migratory habits (between Mexico and Canada), fragility and generational permutations make them ripe for frequent but unfortunately sometimes rather banal comparisons with the novel’s human drama

Sanctuary Line is one of the most grounded of Urqhuart’s novels. She builds stories like an architect, one who relies on solid engineering to ensure soundness. Stanley, volatile and enigmatic, is the novel’s most compelling character, and the ending, when it comes, is well worth the wait, revealing the answers to mysteries we didn’t even know existed. The brilliance of Urquhart’s powerful ending is that it makes us want to start again from the beginning, to re-consider all the protagonists, particularly Stan,  in the new light it casts

Buy Sanctuary Line here

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  1. Debra

    January 16, 2012

    Very glad to see a positive review of a book that Uquhart talked about when in London UK.

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January 16, 2012

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