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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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Most helpful customer reviews
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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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Look out the window... Sept. 9 2010
By Friederike Knabe TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"...The cultivated landscape of this farm has decayed so completely now, it is difficult to believe that the fields and orchards ever existed outside my own memories, my own imagination... ". With these opening lines Liz Crane, forty-year old entomologist and the central voice in Jane Urquhart's new, engrossing and most personal novel invites us into her world and into her mind. Having recently returned to the old Butler homestead and studying monarch butterfly behaviour at the nearby Sanctuary Research Centre, Liz feels she needs to reconnect with all that is familiar from the past. She let's her mind wander back to the fun-filled summers of her childhood, spent amongst her cousins and the rest of the extended family. Important questions have remained since then about the whereabouts of some and she hopes that by going through the remnants of memorabilia kept in the farmhouse she will shed some light on these.

Much of the story takes place in the nineteen eighties at the Butler family farm on the northern, Canadian, shore of Lake Erie, a landscape that is depicted with detailed and loving attention and that is somewhat familiar to readers of Urquhart's previous novels. She and many of her characters feel grounded there. Liz, the city girl is the enthusiastic "summer cousin" immersed in play and exploration, especially with her cousin Mandy. Mandy and her father Stanley, the head of the Butler clan, are often on Liz's mind now in her ruminations about the past. Mandy, the poetry lover turned military officer, was killed on duty in Afghanistan not long ago, and Stan, the life-loving, "innovative" farmer disappeared without a trace one day, twenty years earlier.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mariposa Memories Sept. 7 2010
Consider memory. At any time, a person's mind potentially holds the sum total of all her experience, though she may not be able to access all of it. She may have forgotten details, until reminded by revisiting a place or picking up a keepsake. There may be memories too painful to recall, until the recounting of simpler things clears a pathway to them. There may be things that she cannot understand until the light of maturity suddenly reveals their meaning. Unlike a tale told chronologically, a novel based on memory contains its entire story in outline from the first pages on -- although it remains unclear in detail, emotion, and significance until we have lived long enough in the narrator's mind to explore her past from within. And Jane Urquhart, in the gradual unspooling of memory that is essence of her latest novel, allows us to inhabit the mind of Liz Crane, her protagonist and narrator, as though it were our own.

Liz is an entomologist, working at a sanctuary situated on a promontory of the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. She studies the Monarch butterfly, which migrates annually from Canada to Mexico and back again, the task being spread between several generations, dying so that others may live. The theme of migration is strongly present in the book. Her uncle's orchard farm, where Liz used to spend her summers, was worked each year by families flown in from Mexico. Her own family, the Butlers, emigrated from Ireland, settling on both the American and Canadian sides of the lake; the novel is full of their stories. Her uncle himself was given to unexplained disappearances, and one year he simply walked out of their lives for good. More recently, her cousin Mandy, a senior officer in the Canadian army, spent several years in Afghanistan, dying there shortly before the book opens.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Oct. 8 2010
Jane Urquhart's new novel, "Sanctuary Line", is a brilliant work of art. It is both moving and profound. What was - is the multi-layered architect of - what is.
Urquhart unfurls the past of one family through a young woman's memories which float, like Monarchs, into her present and her place.
Everyone should read this magnificent and magical book.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Descriptive but slow.
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.
Published 6 months ago by Christine Douglas
5.0 out of 5 stars Ontario History and Life Served Up as a Literary Feast via Story
This is another gem by Urquhart, and in my opinion demonstrates why she is one of Canada's premier writers. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Marcie Taylor
5.0 out of 5 stars An exceptional story by an extraordinary writer
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... Read more
Published 23 months ago by Campbell MacLean
5.0 out of 5 stars The Joys and Agonies of Growing Up
I found this the best description of the turmoil of being a teenager I have found. It was also an excellent review of our ancestors/families and how their actions and words shape... Read more
Published on March 19 2011 by Mair
3.0 out of 5 stars Sanctuary Line worth a read for Urquhart fans and those interested in...
Although not Urquhart's best novel, I enjoyed Sanctuary Line for memories it brought back of living in Essex County. Read more
Published on Nov. 5 2010 by Cobourger
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and disappointing
this book is beaurifully written with wonderful descrip;tive phrases but the story line is very weak. Read more
Published on Oct. 23 2010 by quilt
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