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Sanctuary Line [Hardcover]

Jane Urquhart
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 31 2010
From the #1 national bestselling author of Away, The Stone Carvers, and A Map of Glass, Sanctuary Line is the eagerly anticipated new novel by Jane Urquhart.

Set in the present day on a farm at the shores of Lake Erie, Jane Urquhart's stunning new novel weaves elements from the nineteenth-century past, in Ireland and Ontario, into a gradually unfolding contemporary story of events in the lives of the members of one family that come to alter their futures irrevocably. There are ancestral lighthouse-keepers, seasonal Mexican workers; the migratory patterns and survival techniques of the Monarch butterfly; the tragedy of a young woman's death during a tour of duty in Afghanistan; three very different but equally powerful love stories. Jane Urquhart brings to vivid life the things of the past that make us who we are, and reveals the sometimes difficult path to understanding and forgiveness.

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Product Description

Quill & Quire

It is not a fictional location, but in Jane Urquhart’s hands, Southern Ontario has become an entire imagined world, much like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Urquhart returns once again to this literary landscape in her latest work, a melancholy history of a family of orchardists living on the north shore of Lake Erie.

Narrated by Liz Crane, the last remaining member of the Butler family, Sanctuary Line is a story of decay – ­topographical, familial, and moral. “I live in a landscape where absence confronts me daily,” laments Liz, an entomologist who has returned to the now-derelict family farm to monitor the migration of monarch butterflies. Mourning her charismatic but unstable Uncle Stanley, who vanished years earlier, and her cousin Mandy, a military strategist killed in Afghanistan, Liz becomes absorbed with the task of recreating the events that led to her family’s disintegration.

Through flashbacks to her childhood, a narrative slowly emerges. Liz, we learn, is the “summer cousin,” a city girl who returns every summer to the thriving fruit farm operated by her uncle. Stanley is an industrious agriculturalist, employing migrant Mexican workers to till his land and inventing new methods of chemical irrigation to enhance the crops. Liz and her cousins frolic among the trees and swim in the glimmer of the lake. They are ignorant of the dark secrets that Stanley is hoarding, secrets that will ultimately lead to the family’s fall and expulsion from this Eden.

Of course, paradise is relative; the Butler farm is no Eden for the Mexican labourers who are shipped in via cargo plane and sleep in cramped bunkhouses throughout the growing season. If the farm provides a picturesque portrait of respectable Canadian life, these workers lurk constantly in the shadows of the frame.

Woven into the narrative are Stanley’s myths of the Butler “great-greats” – the family’s Irish ancestors, all of whom worked as either farmers or lighthouse-­keepers. These stories are among the novel’s highlights, juxtaposing the material of 18th- and 19th-century romance against the staid, unruffled composure of small-town Ontario. Uncle Stanley fortifies the Butler myth with tales of the great-greats’ fabled adventures – tales of ships lost at sea, drowned orphans, and long-separated lovers.

Like her uncle, Liz is a gifted storyteller. But for Liz, remembering is an exercise in reconstruction, shaping the past as a way of making sense of it. “What can I do with all that ambiguity and doubt?” she asks. “There is no information I can bring to it, no light I can shine on it to make it any clearer.” She can be a frustrating narrator, withholding and secretive, but her fragmented perspective mirrors the non-linear nature of memory itself.

Few of the book’s characters escape comparisons to the monarchs. In addition to symbolizing Liz’s migration to and from the Butler farm, the butterflies are used to describe young Mandy’s shy teenage years (“the chrysalis phase”) and even the end of the family line: “It will die in flight, without mating,” Liz says, “and the exquisite possibilities it carries in its cells and in the thrall of its migration will simply never come to pass.”

Butterflies are just one of many symbolic motifs that pepper the text. Doubles and doppelgängers ripple throughout the novel, which also teems with references to glass and reflective surfaces that serve to isolate characters, refract images, and distort perceptions.

The novel’s overreliance on symbolism can grate, but from a narrative perspective, it results from Liz’s attempt to reconstruct an ordered world where everything makes sense, something the scientific method is incapable of. “The thing about scientific system taxonomy … is that while it pretends to inject predictability and comfort into our world, it can’t really cause either of these states to come into being.”

Liz’s narrative engenders an inescapable intimacy with her character and the landscape, but unfortunately the other Butlers are not as fully formed. Mandy and Stanley, two figures whose losses should be deeply and viscerally felt, never really become more than names. Their personalities and inner lives are described, but not experienced. The material that could have been devoted to character development instead falls victim to rambling rhetoric and empty prose. For example, Liz argues, “I might have become acquainted with the hesitancy, the frailty of spirit that attends certain kinds of love, as well as the baffling tenacity of a passion as difficult as Mandy’s appeared to be.” It all sounds extraordinarily pretty, but the writing is bloated: it manages to say a great deal that means very little.

The novel’s pacing is also hindered by this tendency to veer into poetic, yet often vapid, digression. It bogs the story down, making it difficult to care what happens to characters that have already been given short shrift.

The story does pick up as it nears its climax, however, and comes to a poignant, somber close as Liz’s history finally comes into focus. Sanctuary Line is, ultimately, a sensitive meditation on the fragile but inexorable ties between place, identity, and history. In it, Urquhart simultaneously honours and destabilizes the tradition of Canadian pastoral.


"Urquhart's prose is as smooth and uncluttered as Margaret Atwood's."
The Observer

"The most compelling depiction of the sense of place in human lives."
—Alice Munro

"Urquhart weaves centuries and stories together… She displays a masterful command of language and a grasp of the complexities that form the tapestry of each individual person."
Winnipeg Free Press

"Jane Urquhart is one of the country's most accomplished writers."
London Free Press

"No other Canadian novelist knows more about the history of rural southern Ontario than Jane Urquhart."
Toronto Star

"Sanctuary Line is a book lover's novel… her writing is often beautiful, stirring"
The Globe and Mail

"Urquhart's prose is pure gold…"
Winnipeg Free Press

"Urquhart builds stories like an architect… and the brilliance of Urquhart's powerful ending is that it makes us want to start again…"
Toronto Star

"Measured, dignified, calm on the surface but containing as much thematic richness and plain literary pleasure as a reader could care to dig for…"
—Montreal Gazette

"I'm grateful to have spent time with Sanctuary Line and soaked up Urquhart's nuanced wisdom…"
Vancouver Sun

"Urquhart has a great gift for the historical novel, for the melding of ideas, events and individuals into a significant whole."
—Claire Messud, The Globe and Mail

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Samantha TOP 500 REVIEWER
I am a die-hard Urquhart fan so I hung in there despite being disappointed in the distance I felt from the characters and the meandering plot (much of which seemed to have little to no effect on either character or plot development; in my opinion, it was just back story that needed to be edited out). However, by the end, the story comes together (albeit a little too late) and I felt engaged with two of the characters. Oddly, I felt least connected to the uncle which permeates each page and the most connected to a character that isn't even introduced until the last pages, the character that is the reason for the occasional second-person point of view (which was interesting from a literature perspective but annoying from a personal one). An important part of the novel, for me, was Urquhart's apt and sad description of the disappearance of "local" orchards/farms from Southwestern Ontario. I live on Lake Huron close to Arkona which had a plethora of thriving orchards just twenty years ago, most of which are now gone. It saddens me that most of the tree fruit I buy now is shipped from all over the world. The thirty minute drive to Arkona every summer for cherries and every fall for bushels of freshly picked apples was one of my greatest pleasures. I found myself quite dispirited for a couple of days over the "progress" we've made. So, there's no doubt that Urquhard knows how to affect her readers.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and disappointing Oct. 23 2010
By quilt
this book is beaurifully written with wonderful descrip;tive phrases but the story line is very weak. The description of Southwestern Ontario is beautiful and accurate from the butterflies to the lake to surrounding farms and forests. This would be the reason to read this book. I have read most of this author's work but this is not her best effort
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3.0 out of 5 stars Descriptive but slow. May 24 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It took forever to get to the main theme. I found this annoying rather than suspenseful. The writing was beautifully descriptive but the plot dragged.
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Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is another gem by Urquhart, and in my opinion demonstrates why she is one of Canada's premier writers. The story itself is captivating and completely credible, it seems to me. Her use of language is gorgeous, and her character development superb. One has the flavour of Ontario life in this era, in one's mind throughout the novel -- candy for one's brain!
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5.0 out of 5 stars An exceptional story by an extraordinary writer Dec 10 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is Urquhart at the top of her game as a story teller with extraordinary writing skills. She composes her story like a master painter getting the right balance of composition, texture and colour complexities. Set in rural south western Ontario the landscape is home to several generations of the Butler family who farm their land and grow their families. The past is always present in this setting as the twenty-first century generation of the family weave in and out of relationships with themselves, the community and the "outsider" who come every summer to work on the farm. The story has mystery, drama, humour and questions about the meaning of lifes lived on the edge of love, hate and forgiveness. A. MacLean
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