A Map of Glass Paperback – Jun 13 2006
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In the typical Urquhart mold, A Map of Glass is a novel about the past, the land, and art, subjects found in many of her previous novels. A young artist, Jerome, is alone on Timber Island to take photos of temporary art creations, or "absences," he has dug in the snow. While there, he finds the body of Andrew Woodman, an Alzheimer's sufferer, frozen in the ice of the river. Later, an older woman, Sylvia, searches out Jerome and his girlfriend in Toronto. Slightly autistic, she has fled her doctor husband in rural eastern Ontario because she wants to talk to Jerome about Andrew, her lover. The three sections of the book are intelligently constructed, with the two contemporary sections framing the central section, which recounts the history of the Woodman family, 19th-century shipbuilders and hotelkeepers on Lake Ontario.
Urquhart's writing is extremely resonant and always echoes her larger themes: "How wonderful the snow was; every change of direction, each whim, even the compulsion of hunger was marked on its surface, like memory, for a brief season." Her writing is also highly cerebral--little happens in this novel but there is an enormous quantity of thoughtful reflection. The depiction of the Woodman past, with its near-mythical characters and its grand hotel invaded by sand, is so deeply realized that the present feels amorphous in contrast, its characters infused with the ambiguity of modernism. In the end, however, Urquhart shows how this makes perfect sense for, with profound subtlety, she raises a startling question: In the face of shocking change--in landscapes, in memories that fade to nothing, even in the complete dissolution of the human personality in Alzheimer's--what can still be called reality? Urquhart is a subtle master at work. --Mark Frutkin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Urquhart's passion for the past (The Stone Carvers) and the land (The Underpainters, winner of the Governor General's Award in Canada) are at full poetic play in this intricate story of love, loss and memory. Set in present-day Toronto and in the 19th-century world of rural Ontario timber barons, it opens with the wintry death of Alzheimer's sufferer Andrew, whose body, borne by an ice floe, runs aground on the small Lake Ontario island where artist Jerome McNaughton is seeking inspiration. The story steps back a century, to when Andrew's ancestors, owners of the same island, razed forests to build ships, then it jumps forward a year from the opening scene of Andrew's death, to when Sylvia, Andrew's married lover of 20 years, sets out to meet with Jerome, who discovered Andrew's body, and, through Jerome, to reconnect one last time with Andrew. Meanwhile, Jerome, the relationship-shy adult child of an abusive, alcoholic father, is slowly coming to trust that girlfriend Mira's love for him is real. Urquhart reveals all of their haunted personal histories in the lyrical first and third parts of the novel. But it's in the compact family-saga middle, where a slew of Andrew's memorable forebears take the stage, that this novel's luminous heart truly lies. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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A Map of Glass is a beautifully written novel divided into three sections with deftly handled shifts in time and place, as one would expect from a highly regarded writer like Jane Urquhart. The themes of winter, loneliness, terrain, and thwarted creative pursuits give the book a melancholy tone. While it was interesting to read about rural life in Ontario in the late nineteenth century, the book was a little too plodding at times. A couple of key questions were purposely left unanswered and I wanted to know more. For example, there were hints and references to Sylvia’s “condition” yet it’s never clearly identified.
It’s been a long time since I read Canadian literary fiction, however I remember the same deliberately vague approach to key story components in other Canadian literary fiction. Some readers like the style, preferring their own interpretation to the words. For me, the pacing issues and deliberate ambiguity reminds me why I turned to, and still prefer, genre fiction. Having said that—and despite my dissatisfaction with the ending—the elegant writing in every paragraph is undeniable.
A splendid opening scene depicts Andrew en route to remote Timber Island, deep in the throes of Alzheimer's, lurching toward his death. Thereafter, his married lover Sylvia travels to meet with McNaughton 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 masteryof 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.
I also recommend'The Quest' by George Kostantinos.
The central figure providing the glue, so to say, for the story's different threads is Sylvia, middle-aged and apparently suffering from a "condition" that, while not defined, suggests some form of autism. Since childhood she has been more comfortable with objects rather than people, preferring to touch their permanent and solid surfaces. The unpredictability and change that human beings represent made her withdraw, until... Nevertheless, she has married her doctor who had moved into the family home, taking over her father's surgery and the gentle and considerate treatment of the "patient". Under his guidance, Sylvia slowly learns to move cautiously beyond her familiar territory into the wider neighbourhood, concentrating on establishing clear landmarks for herself. During one of these outings, she meets Andrew, a landscape and historical geographer, a man "who walked into the past", who has been researching his family history. A secret friendship ensues that lasts on and off for many years, until he disappears from her life.Read more ›
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The story moves between the current day where Sylvia searches for the people who found Andrew. Andrew's death is neither a mystery nor crime but it awakens strong memories in Sylvia and a desire to share them. This is done first through her dialogue with Jerome who had previously come across Andrew's body and then through more subtle drifting back in time. From there the story takes a leap back a further 100 or 150 years to life on the eastern side of Lake Ontario which was just beginning to boom with agriculture, mining, forestry all from a booming immigration from Europe.
There were a number of things that bothered me as I continued to read. How did this woman with clear phobias if not outright illnesses suddenly find the ability to leave her house and venture into a a big unpredictable city (Toronto)? Orderliness and predictability are dwelled upon as critical to her and for her. She has an episode as a child where she cannot adjust to even a breeze moving through an open window. Still later how could she possibly have had a intimate romance when she again is so challenged to have any relationship deeper than a brief discussion let alone a physical encounter?
These thoughts lingered on. Further on I found myself drifting constantly from the page. The timeline bounces from present, near past and far past which I think adversely slowed down the pace.
One character takes a full chapter to travel for work which seems to only result in the author introducing another minor character (Ghost).
When Sylvia and Jerome talk about Andrew it provokes Jerome to recall his own sad childhood ruined by an alcoholic father. He recounts his father's death leading ultimately to his mother's death. At which point Sylvia says "she died for him (the father)". It seemed too strong. The conversation was too elevated. It strained credibility.
Sylvia constantly has second thoughts about sharing memories of Andrew with Jerome. She realizes he is young (25). At one point she makes a self-deprecating comment about her bad cooking or coffee. It's unlikely that someone with the myriad of socialization problems brought to light at the beginning of the book would have such capacity for insight, empathy or humility. Gentle poking humor at oneself is generally a sign of a very high functioning adult which she clearly is not supposed to be.
How all this plays out was again in conflict. Slyvia's husband is a very intelligent and compassionate man and he has an extremely high EQ and yet Urquardt would also want us to believe that is he condescending and somehow suffocating Sylvia keeping her somehow locked in mental trap but it just does not seem to be the case. His role seemed inconsistent to me.
The book is often tedious. It felt like every word or phrase had a double with metaphors and symbolism that I was missing. The snow, vision, the way a flower might be picked or some of the dialog (Says Jerome at one point commenting on art: "It's strange, now that I think of it, how much attention is always given to construction when decay is really more pervasive, more inevitable" to which Mira responds "Decay and change," said Mira. "People moving from place to place. leaving things behind."). Syliva. I was constantly re-reading to see if I was supposed to understand more than was what literal. It frankly became nearly unreadable in parts.
What I'd suggest to the curious is to read a page or 2. The writing style is consistent throughout the book. If you like the random page or 2 than this may like it. I think it's really a question of personal taste.
All this will be the subject of the central section of this three-part novel, an elegantly-told family saga beginning with an English immigrant, Joseph Woodman, who founds a timber and ship-building empire on an island just where Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence River. But the main focus is on Joseph's son, Branwell, Andrew's great-grandfather. Trained in Paris as an artist, he spends the rest of his life on an uneasy balance between art and commerce, two opposing viewpoints that emerge as one of the philosophical axes of the book. Branwell's sister Annabelle in a way has it easier, because as a woman she is not expected to enter the business and so can devote herself to painting -- but all she paints are her father's ships and their destruction by water, fire, or time.
Were the novel confined to this historical story, it would still be a very good one. What makes it remarkable are the framing sections set in the present. Andrew, it turns out, was a landscape geographer, a kind of archaeologist who reconstructs earlier lives from the traces people leave in their surrounding world. Jerome McNaughton, who finds Andrew's frozen body, is an artist engaged in similar pursuits, making careful excavations, taking photographs, and building imaginative reconstructions. Both, in their different ways, make maps. So does Urquhart's primary character, Sylvia, who makes tactile maps for a blind friend, Julia, so that she may explore her landscape by feel. It is Sylvia's closeness to Andrew that brings her to Jerome's studio and begins the process of linking past to present -- a linkage that Urquhart reinforces by a web of subtle cross-references that are intricate without ever being obtrusive.
Julia is blind; Andrew developed Alzheimer's; Annabelle was lame; Sylvia appears to suffer from a form of autism; even the young and apparently healthy Jerome will turn out to have been spiritually crippled by the legacy of an alcoholic father. The most amazing of Urquhart's many feats of alchemy is that she manages to turn these apparent disabilities into gifts. The reader turns the pages with wonder, enthralled by the writer's inexhaustible ability to see familiar things in a new way. Central to it all is Sylvia, whose social limitations and fear of change will nonetheless turn her into the virtual author of a story of love and family whose very subject is change.
A MAP OF GLASS is even greater than Urquhart's excellent previous novel, THE STONE CARVERS. Both share a three-part structure; both go back into Canadian history; and both are centered around a work of visual art. The underlying inspiration here is a 1969 piece by Robert Smithson entitled "A Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis)," an 18-by-15 foot pile of broken window panes that suggests the debris of lost civilizations, but which nonetheless catches the light in unexpected ways and glistens with a mystery of its own. Urquhart's MAP is also a lament for the past, but its quiet glow of consolation is nothing short of a miracle.
The central figure providing the glue, so to say, for the story's different threads is Sylvia, middle-aged and apparently suffering from a "condition" that, while not defined, suggests some form of autism. Since childhood she has been more comfortable with objects rather than people, preferring to touch their permanent and solid surfaces. The unpredictability and change that human beings represent made her withdraw, until... Nevertheless, she has married her doctor who had moved into the family home, taking over her father's surgery and the gentle and considerate treatment of the "patient". Under his guidance, Sylvia slowly learns to move cautiously beyond her familiar territory into the wider neighbourhood, concentrating on establishing clear landmarks for herself. During one of these outings, she meets Andrew, a landscape and historical geographer, a man "who walked into the past", who has been researching his family history. A secret friendship ensues that lasts on and off for many years, until he disappears from her life.
The novel opens with Andrew, suffering from Alzheimer's, attempting to return to the island where his forbears had created their timber business. This is one of the most delicate and evocatively beautiful passages in the book. "...The palms of his gloved hands are open to the sky as if he were silently requesting that the world come back to him, that the broken connections of heart and mind be mended, that language and the knowledge of a cherished place re-enter his consciousness..." While there are many other sections of moving lyricism and rich imagery, making reading Urquhart's prose such a delight, this first passage draws the reader right into the mysterious connections between Andrew, Sylvia and a young, "conceptual artist", Jerome. Jerome had found Andrew's body, frozen in ice during a visit to the now abandoned island. In his art he attempts to capture civilization debris, remnants of earlier human habitation. To some extent Jerome symbolizes Urquhart's own exploration of Robert Smithson's aesthetics. The novel's title is derived from Smithson's sculpture "Map of Broken Glass"; Smithson's contention that "the artist seeks.... the fiction that reality will sooner or later imitate" can be interpreted as one of the novel's underlying motives.
Sylvia, having learned of Andrew's death, seeks out Jerome, who she feels is holding "the end of Andrew's story... in a way, the last thing he told me". For the same reason, Sylvia feels compelled to share her life story, reluctantly at first, with this young stranger and finds an increasingly attentive listener. Jerome has his own demons to battle and, maybe, they can both help each other at some point.
Embedded in the present-day narrative, Andrew's journals form the middle section of the novel. They stand on their own and delve into the fascinating saga of his great-great grandfather, one of the early timber barons in Southern Ontario, and three generations of his offspring. Urquhart brings out Andrew's distinct voice: his description of the family's changing fortunes and long-term destiny is completely captivating. Their reign over the island leaves the land dramatically altered with consequences far beyond the landscape: symbolic for the impact of destroying its natural beauty and for the family's greed is the image of their fancy hotel, now almost totally submerged in sand. As a counterbalance to those driven solely by profit, there are those with more redeeming features, such as family values and, in particular, artistic talent and expression.
Art and artists always play an important role in Urquhart's novels. Sylvia is an artist of sorts: she creates tactile maps for her blind friend Julia. Maps are important to her as they establish some form of solidity and permanency. Her own maps reflect her very personal sense of landscapes, shapes and markers that she shares with her friend. Julia asked her once, how she could be sure that what she sees is what other people see. Maybe a more profound question than intended, it turns out as we, the readers, are encouraged to follow the fluid lines between her imagination and reality. Sylvia's version of her life's story, of her relationship with Andrew, with her husband, may not match the one the reader is being led to believe. Or is it? And, as Jerome muses: "maybe landscape -- place -- makes people more knowable. Or it did, in the past". This is a novel to absorb slowly, to ponder and to be carried away into different mental and real landscapes, rich in symbolism and breathtakingly beautiful at times. [Friederike Knabe]
Sylvia is a middle-aged woman with an unspecified "condition" that sounds a lot like Asperger's. She has one friend, who is blind, and a husband, Malcolm, who is blind to her secret life. She stays shuttered in her house, images of tables and bibelots running through her head ceaselessly, the light from the windows casting shadows and reflections that play on the artifacts and with her consciousness. She is an autodidact of esoteric knowledge, of the entire history of this isolated, disappearing, glacial town, and she makes luxuriantly detailed, three-dimensional maps of the area. One day, she gets her driver's license and starts combing the peninsula. She meets a historical geographer, Andrew Woodman, and has a long, secret passionate affair that becomes the focus of her existence. Time passes, (their affair is interrupted by a seven year separation) and she knows that Alzheimer's is eroding his mind and his life, until one day he just disappears. A year later, she reads in a newspaper that he had died (a year ago), was in fact found floating in an ice floe and discovered by a three-dimensional wilderness artist named Jerome McNaughton.
Jerome is a young man suffering from an unresolved past--an alcoholic, abusive father and withering, spineless mother--who now has difficulty committing fully to the woman he loves (Mira), of sharing all his private sorrow and rage. When Sylvia contacts him to meet and discuss Andrew, he reticently agrees. The series of meetings between Sylvia and Jerome and Mira focus on Andrew's ancestral journals--the history of the Woodmans going back to Andrew's great-great grandfather and the timber industry. What the journals reveal about Andrew and his family forms a cynosure between Jerome and Sylvia. And, in turn, their tenuous, brief bond becomes a niche where history, love, and home are revealed and a palpable epiphany takes place.
The novel's most transcendent attribute is the poetic fusion of the landscape with the themes of loss, identity, and home. The story of Andrew is told in reflection. His profession as a historical geographer cleaves with the history and geography of the region (much of it contained in the journals) and progresses to his relationship with Sylvia. Time vacillates between static and dynamic as events almost pour out of time, while the present feels stagnant until the journals' history can influence the ones left behind. There is never an immediacy that the reader feels between Andrew and Sylvia, because Andrew is already a piece of history when the novel opens. I believe the author intended that, and she effectively placed Andrew as a polestar for the healing of others.
The nineteenth century sections were, for me, the most vivid and electrifying. It was through that lens that I was able to visualize the landscape evolving by unchecked capitalism--from forest to deforestation, from rich soil to topsoil for barley, and, eventually, to sand. The tycoon daddys were reminiscent of the American robber barons J.P Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller, steely tycoons who were often tyrannical. The female characters are particularly well fleshed out here. Annabelle, Andrew's great-great aunt, and Marie, his great- grandmother, added pathos to the grandeur of the industrialists. The parallels between characters from both centuries were finely drawn and the fusion of all Andrew's ancestors into his psyche gave the story its most authentic depth of character.
I did have a hard time believing that someone as cloistered as Sylvia for thirty-odd years, who is afflicted with a pronounced social disorder, could go out and have this passionate affair of tremendous life-altering proportions and yet be unnoticed by her husband. I cannot believe that Sylvia has the capacity to live a double life unobstructed. However, she is effective because of the momentum she creates around her and how she is contrasted to the changing environment, as well as paralleled to the history of this region--the hyperreal context I referred to at the beginning of my review.
The story also suffers from a clumsy construction at times. Some of the events are told in a hurried narration and some revelations are telegraphed rather than experienced. There is also a character named Ghost, an archetype who enters late and feels forced into a centerpiece arrangement.
Fortunately, the grace of this story resides in the timeless humanity that is poetically and symbolically rendered. I recommend this unique novel for its astonishing beauty, breathtaking prose, and moving themes. The flaws of this novel dissolve into the scintillating landscape.