Personal and family histories compromised by disability, estrangement and loss are painstakingly intertwined in the prizewinning Canadian author’s sixth novel.
As she did in her best-known earlier books, The Stone Carvers (2002) and The Underpainter (1997), Urquhart explores the psyches and sensibilities of people committed to unconventional forms of art. In this case, they are aging landscape geographer Andrew Woodman; a young “earth artist” (Jerome McNaughton) who attempts to capture in photographs Ontario’s vanishing past; and bereaved protagonist Sylvia Bradley, victim of a debilitating borderline-autistic “condition,” whose fear of imprecision and chaos takes the form of an obsession with maps. A splendid opening scene depicts Andrew en route to remote Timber Island (where his family had built a lumber empire), deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s, lurching toward his death. Thereafter, his married lover Sylvia travels to meet with McNaughton (who had found Woodman’s body, frozen in an iceberg)—and the process of unearthing the past and its secrets begins. The subjects explored are Jerome’s search for permanence through art, in his failed love life and in a world he perceives vulnerable to continual change and decay; Sylvia’s insular childhood, comfortable marriage to an older man whom she doesn’t love and “awakening” in her relationship with Andrew; and—in the novel’s best sequence—the story of the Woodman family. They’re a cut above Faulkner’s Snopeses: a clan of avaricious power-seekers, from whom Andrew had spent his life attempting escape. This is a load for any novelist to handle, and Urquhart achieves only mixed success. She’s a wonderful scene-painter with an impressive mastery of the details of farm and village life. But her story flies in too many directions, and is hamstrung by appallingly portentous, theme-driven dialogue.
At her best, this writer commands an impressive range of varied literary skills. But here, simpler would have been better.