State of grace

Sanctuary Line, by Jane Urquhart, MacLehose Press, RRP£16.99, 256 pages

The heroine of Jane Urquhart’s seventh novel is an entomologist, studying the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly. One of the things she notes about these remarkable insects is that, though they appear to exist in a “state of grace”, their few brief weeks of summer pair-dancing are in fact an atypical interlude in an otherwise fraught existence. For the most part they are either engaged in perilous hibernation, possibly painful transformations or exhausting migrations that frequently end in death.

Monarchs are, of course, a metaphor – though for which particular character in Sanctuary Line is not clear until the end, as pretty much all of them lead fraught lives. The entomologist herself, Liz Crane, has recently come to live alone at her uncle’s family farm on the Canadian edge of Lake Erie in south-western Ontario. She and her mother were summer migrants there when Liz was growing up, and it is the story of these summers, spent in thrall to the charismatic but unpredictable Uncle Stanley and his stories of “the old great-greats”, the Irish ancestors who settled this land before them, that Liz now tells.

On the surface, the summers are idyllic: long days spent outside on the shore of the lake or making dams in the river with Teo, the son of one of the Mexican migrant workers. There’s also the deepening relationship with cousin Mandy, as close to a sister as Liz ever gets. But we know that all will not be well. The story opens a year after Mandy’s death in the armed forces in Afghanistan; her mother is in a residential home, and Liz is now alone at the lake, 40, single, and “missing the children who should have replaced us but haven’t” to face the family ghosts.

Told in the first person and addressed to a mysterious “you” whose identity we only work out gradually, the narrative is a series of reflections on the past with few actual scenes. The effect is that of a thin veil hanging between us and the action. This is not helped by the fact that the butterfly metaphor remains just that: we never see Liz at work in her lab, pinning specimens or tagging wings. And yet as she moves around the old house attempting to solve the riddle of “all that was lost”, the windows and mirrors reproducing and scrambling the views of the lake, the apple orchards decaying and the old barns sagging, the technique begins to justify itself. This is a story about nostalgia, about the uncovering of layers and, driven forward by two parallel mysteries – that of the Mexican boy Teo and “what did and did not pass between us”, and the events of the night that Uncle Stan disappeared – it’s a book that rewards perseverance.

Urquhart is a terrific writer about place. Born and raised in Ontario, she has set all but one of her novels in this harsh northern landscape. She captures very deftly the sense of a disappearing world, created with such personal sacrifice by the first settlers. Stan’s engrossing stories of the great-greats are full of love and woe. A bookish lighthouse keeper is so enraptured by Moby-Dick that he fails to notice the shipwreck happening on the actual sea outside, and never gets over the guilt. A farmer’s son falls hopelessly in love with his young schoolteacher but only plucks up the courage to confess his love when she’s at death’s door. Urquhart handles the layers of narrative with lyrical aplomb; and in Uncle Stanley has created a character compelling and idiosyncratic enough to remain with us as he remains with Liz.

As Urquhart says of one of the great-greats’ tales: “It was the kind of story that moved steadily towards its conclusion, then paused and circled back to begin again in the manner of certain gloomy sonatas.” Sanctuary Line is just such a gloomy sonata but a beautiful, haunting one.

Susan Elderkin is author of ‘The Voices’ (Harper Perennial)

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