Jane Urquhart is one of my favorite authors, as you can probably tell by how many of her books I’ve reviewed here. I first heard of her some years ago at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. She was introduced by Timothy Findley, another of my favorite authors and one who is sorely missed. She in turn acknowledged him as one of her mentors. Before you say, oh those Canadians are so polite, let me just add that I have found this great generosity in every writing community into which I’ve stuck a toe.
Appropriately enough for this season of extraordinary cold and snowfall, this novel starts with an older man stumbling through the snow, a man whom we quickly understand seems to be suffering from a form of dementia. However, he is driven to find a place, an island, and has a map of shoreline in his mind even when the words to describe it have been lost.
The man is Andrew Woodman. His frozen body is found on the island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River by Jerome McNaughton, an artist who has come at the tail end of winter to find inspiration in the grim landscape. While not sure of what he is after, Jerome is drawn to decay and change, winter ice breaking up, branches hanging on still to last season’s twigs and seed pods. “But it was not the quickening of nature that intrigued him, rather the idea of nature’s memory and the way this unstable broken river had build itself briefly into another shape, another form, before collapsing back into what was expected of it.”
When he returns to Toronto, Jerome is sought out by Sylvia Bradley, a housewife living 30 miles from the island, a woman who has been severely sheltered. Seeing the world through her eyes, we understand why her parents and then husband keep her so enclosed: as a child she was so overwhelmed by the world that she made it go away most of the time. She fixated on rituals and the small things of her enclosed world.
Sylvia has developed a friendship with Julia, a blind woman for whom she makes tactile maps of places out of fabric and other materials. However, the great change in Sylvia’s life came when she met Andrew, a casual encounter on a street in town, and through him learned about love and the joy and pain and attention that comes with it.
When I was a child, I believed in places rather than people. Trees and shorelines and paths through the woods seemed more reliable to me, more constant. I was shattered to learn that this was not true, that trees may be cut down, shorelines eroded, and beloved places sold out from under you to be transformed beyond recognition.
This is a book about a place, seen through the lens of people who lived there. It’s about what we can learn of people through their places. Through Andrew’s journals we learn more about the island and the peninsula by it where Sylvia and Andrew’s ancestors live. We learn how these people are changed by this place and the place changed by them. Jerome says, “‘. . . after reading Andrew’s journals, I think maybe landscape—place—makes people more knowable. Or it did in the past. It seems there’s not much of that left now. Everyone’s moving, and the landscape, well, the landscape is disappearing.'”
Within this absorbing story of Sylvia and Jerome and Andrew lies a profound meditation on love and memory and geography and change. I was deeply moved by this story and came to a new understanding and acceptance of losses that still haunt my dreams.
What places hold great significance for you?