Intermittently clunky symbolism and occasional outcroppings of melodramatic improbability dilute the force of this otherwise impressive fifth novel from the Canadian author.
The story follows Urquhart’s earlier fiction in its emphasis on the artistic life (The Underpainter, 1997, etc.). In a series of overlapping extended scenes ranging from the late 19th century to the aftermath of WWI, Urquhart creates a monument, so to speak, to the concept of creating monuments, and to their makers. Her background action is the arrival of Bavarian Catholic priest Archangel Gstir, in 1867, in the southwestern Ontario village of Shovenal, populated mostly by German immigrants. Father Gstir’s dream of building a magnificent church is realized with the help of Joseph Becker, an accomplished woodcarver (who also works in stone). Joseph’s gift is inherited by his granddaughter Klara, a seamstress whose artistic energies are awakened after her mother’s death from cancer, the disappearance of her older brother Tilman (named for a celebrated 16th-century woodcarver, but indifferent to the craft so long practiced in his family), and the death of her lover Eamon O’Sullivan on a battlefield in France. The novel’s major themes draw together when the bereaved Klara, learning of the plans of Canadian sculptor Walter Allward (a real historical figure) to create a stone memorial in France honoring his country’s war dead, travels to France, disguises herself as a man in order to join Allward’s crew of sculptors, and finds peace through both the exercise of her skill and a climactic reconciliation with the restless Tilman. This process is affecting because Klara is a closely observed and vividly portrayed character. Most of the others are far less distinct (with the partial exception of the passionately idealistic Father Gstir).
Not Urquhart’s best, but another memorable illustration of her conception of the revivifying power of art.