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Twisting a sentence into a song...
on April 21, 2010
"The women of this family leaned towards extremes [...] They were plagued by revenants. There was always water involved, exaggerated youth or exaggerated age. Afterwards there was absence..."
Esther O'Malley Robertson, now in her eighties, and by her own admission "the last and most subdued" of these extreme women tells the family's story one last time "to herself and the Great Lake, there being no one to listen." The story, she muses, "will take her wherever it wants to go in the next twelve hours, and that is all that matters." And what a story it is! Like her protagonist, Jane Urquhart "paints a landscape in her mind", so rich in colours and shades, and so full of life - real and imagined, large as the ocean, minuscule as a tide pool - and so intimate in the depiction of its human inhabitants with their deep connection to the land and the waters that sustain them.
Spanning some one hundred and forty years, Urquhart creates a intricate multigenerational portrait of a family, starting out on the island of Rathlin, at the most northern coast of Ireland and leaving with Esther at Loughbreeze Beach on the shores of Lake Ontario. Mary, Esther's great-grandmother, stands tall at the beginning of the story, but, overwhelmed by what she experiences one early morning on the beach, changes into somebody that the locals refer to as being "away" - living in an otherworldly reality. She eventually returns to "normal life" thanks to the dedicated gentle care of Brian, her new husband. Urquhart's subtle and sensitive description of the young couple's evolving relationship, set against the increasingly precarious circumstances of the farming communities around them, pulls the reader right into their reality and creates an intimate empathy that only grows as the story unfolds. The contrast between the poverty stricken tenant farmers and their English landlords is stark, yet, even when portraying the latter, the author is perceptive to their limited efforts to help those dependent on them for their survival.
Urquhart touches on major historical events over the novel's time span. With heart wrenching intensity she describes the impact of the Irish potato famine, the subsequent wave of Irish immigration to then "Upper Canada", and the challenges faced by the early settlers and would-be farmers in the harsh landscape of the Canadian Shield. The struggle of the Irish immigrants goes beyond their claiming and cultivating the land and the political realities compete with the domestic; Urquhart interweaves the two component with great skill and balance. Yet, her central force are always the individuals, vividly portrayed, and their attachment, and often fascination, with the landscape they find themselves in. For Mary this deep connection is with the sea; her need for touching it will eventually dictate the rest of her life. For her children, Liam and Eileen, and all those who follow in this family tapestry, Urquhart's poetic and beautifully flowing language captures the diverse characters' deep emotions, at time haunting and heart wrenching and at others sensuous and exuberant. Some of the men are wanderers and capture the attention and love of their women in fleeting visits, others, especially Brian and his son Liam, are earthbound and provide the solid support to those who are torn between the land and the water - the 'here' and the 'away'. Esther, being the last in the line, knows that "Over the years the women of the family who have ventured out into the world have carried pictures of Loughbreeze Beach with them in their minds; its coloured stones shining through water, the places where fine pebbles give way to sand, certain paths the moon makes across the lake's surface on autumn midnights..."
The characterization of one person that he can twist " a sentence into a song" could not be a better description for the author's talents. Whether evoking the diverse emotions of individuals, the inner or outside landscapes they are connected to, the changing seasons with their atmospheric transformations, Urquhart's rich prose carries the reader into a mystical world that is both very real and richly imagined. [Friederike Knabe]