Sanctuary Line, by Jane Urquhart

Review copy courtest McClelland and Stewart

I think that it is probably fair to say that Jane Urquhart is an author of acquired taste. If you like “introspective” fiction — her books are only 20 yards wide, but they are 300 feet deep — you love her novels. And if you don’t (“this is so, so boring”), you want no part of reading another volume.

Sanctuary Line is going to confirm both those opposing prejudices. You can put me in the former category as someone who loves Jane Urquhart’s work — and this novel confirms for me her place in the front rank of Canadian novelists. At the same time, if you hated her previous work, by all means give this one a miss — it will only confirm your dislike.

(Thanks to the author’s publishers, McClelland and Stewart, KfC is able to off not one, not two, but three contests for draws for Jane Urquhart books — check the post below this one and please enter. You can test out your prejudice, whichever way it tilts :-) .)

The Sanctuary Line of the title is a road that runs from the shore of Lake Erie in southwestern Ontario into the inland. By the shore is what used to be the Baxter orchards and fruit fields (strawberries, then cherries, then plums and pears — take a few weeks break — and then the apples — we Canadians know this order well), degenerating into untended ruin in the present tense of the novel, but a major force in generations past. The narrator, Liz, a descendant of the great-greats, greats and grands, now an entomologist who has returned to the family farm where she used to spend her summers, introduces its history:

Look out the window.

The cultivated landscape of this farm has decayed so completely now, it is difficult to believe that the fields and orchards ever existed outside of my own memories, my own imagination. Even by the time I was in my early twenties, the terrain had already been altered — almost beyond recognition — what with the bunkhouses deteriorating and the trees left unpruned and therefore bearing scant fruit. But that was during the period when my aunt was beginning to sever parts of the property so that it could be sold to developers; a step, I believed then, in the march toward some kind of future, or at least a financial future for her, and for my mother, who had just begun to live here as well. Now my aunt is dead and my mother lives at a place called The Golden Field, an ironic moniker if there ever was one, especially in relation to the one remaining field at this location, its greyness in the fading light.

Those are the opening words of Sanctuary Line and, if they don’t appeal to you, travel no further. On the other hand, if the way that Urquhart has started to outline her story sparks your curiosity, move on. You won’t be disappointed. I am of an age (and was born not that far from where this book is set) that the exploration of what produced me and my kind has more than marginal appeal. Urquhart does an excellent job of addressing it.

It is tempting to say that Sanctuary Line is a novel about “change”, but that would be wrong — rather it is a novel about “transition” and the importance of those events in our personal history that have a lasting effect. The author’s premise is that more often than not, we cannot influence those events when they take place — but they will influence us for ever and ever. This is a memory novel: Liz, the narrator, who is now back at the orchard farm, remembers how indelibly she was influenced by what happened there in decades past, even if it is only now that she can understand the impact of the incidents of the time. The reader is invited to join her in slowly but surely filling up the canvas of her background.

A vital context for this is implied by the monarch butterfly’s presence on the book cover. Liz is back at the farm because she has a job at the Sanctuary Reserach Centre where she pursues her “day” job of researching the monarch butterfly:

A monarch tree branch


As for the monarchs, in those early summers we didn’t even know where they went or where they came from, depending on your point of view. We simply accepted them as something summer always brought to us, like our own fruit, or like strawberries or corn at the roadside markets, or, for that matter, like the Mexicans. It would be years before the sanctuary on the Point began to tag the butterflies in order to follow the course of their migration, and several years more before the place where the specimens from our region “wintered over” would come to my attention.

Still, each summer we were stunned anew by what we came to call the butterfly tree. In the intervening months with winter upon us, preoccupied with school and other pursuits, we would have forgotten this spectacle, so its discovery was a surprising gift at the end of the season: an autumn tree that is a burning bush, an ordinary cedar alight with wings. Glancing down the lane, we would presume that while the surrounding foliage had retained its summer greeen, the leaves on that one tree had turned orange overnight. Then, before the phenomenon had fully registered in our minds, we would recall the previous occasions.

In contrast to the butterflies, there is also the story of Mandy, Liz’s cousin who grew up on the farm. Mandy joined Canada’s armed forces and was a rising star — until an IED in Afghanistan ended her life. Urquhart is quite effective in contrasting the past and present without over-sentimentalizing either.

It is tempting — indeed, almost inevitable — to say that Jane Urquhart lives in Alice Munro country, that section of southern Ontario that one of Canada’s best writers has effectively made her own in the world of books. Actually, Urquhart’s Ontario is both east and north of Munro’s but the comparison is fair: both are intensely interested in exploring how landscape — and generations of ancestral history — affect the present. I will admit that when I was reading this novel I frequently thought of Munro’s The View from Castle Rock, her own summary of her family history, told in a collection of short stories. Sanctuary Line is equally effective at evoking the idea that our history is always a part of us and that we will spend much of our life trying to figure out just how it is touching us right now.

As is usual with Urquhart, there is a darker side to the story — the foreshadowing occurs early in the novel and that story line becomes increasingly dominant as it progresses. I’ve avoided it here, not just to avoid spoilers, but because for me the “plot” was a vehicle that maintained interest but was actually incidental to what I think this novel is really about. We all have history and, as we age, we all remember incidents from childhood and adolescence that influence that history. For me, that is the real strength of Sanctuary Line — it did not just cause me to wonder about the stories of the people around me, it caused me to wonder about my own. There is no more that I could ask from a book.

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24 Responses to “Sanctuary Line, by Jane Urquhart”

  1. leroyhunter Says:

    Purely because it’s a recent read, but my first thought is – Bakker, The Twin. Memory, family, the land (a farm, specifically).
    It also sounds to me like some of the Berger books you’ve recommended.

    I’ve never heard of Urquhart before but you’ve got me interested in this one Kevin. Really nice description of a book “300 feet deep”.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Your comparison with The Twin is quite appropriate (and I had not thought of it until I read your comment). (Visitors can find a link to my review in the right sidebar.) One of the reasons that I like Urquhart is that she takes “grand” themes (often involving immigration and the mass movement of people) and personalizes them. There is less of that in this novel but it explores another phenomenon — the conflict between the agrarian (the declining orchard) and the urban (where Liz spent eight months of the year growing up). The metaphor of the monarch butterfly is very well developed.

    The contrast with Berger is equally interesting. He tends to romanticize the peasant (that is an over-simplification on my part, but I hope you get what I mean) whereas Urquhart leans more towards how people need to adapt to accommodate transition. Both, however, do explore the tensions that are present in responding to these forces — which makes for interesting fiction.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Unusually lengthy quotes for you Kevin, but I can absolutely see why.

    In Kingsley Amis’s New Maps of Hell he opens with a lengthy quote from a classic SF tale and says in effect -if you liked that, I’ve more to show you, if you didn’t you may as well close the book now.

    Your opening rather reminded me of that. Sometimes it is necessary isn’t it to just say “this is what it is, if this doesn’t speak to you then I’ve got nothing to say that’s going to change that”.

    I liked your 300′ deep comment too.

    Is the Afghanistan bit natural or tacked on? I guess my concern is whether it’s trying to be relevant, which can end up dating a book very quickly.

    Also, this clearly had resonance for you. Do you think you’d have enjoyed it as much 30 years ago or does it need a few miles on the clock before it can be fully appreciated do you think?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Yes the quotes are longer than usual — Urquhart writes longish paragraphs and you can see that one leads to the other, so it is hard to get away with just quoting one. Your Amis reference is appropriate as well — she is an author of nuance and shade (as well as depth) and if you don’t appreciate that (and I can see why some don’t) your time is better spent with someone else.

    The Afghan story line did not seem tacked on for me, since it represented just another element in the evolution/transition that the entire family was facing. (SPOILER: I didn’t reference it in the review, but it also involves an affair that Mandy is having with a superior, which adds to the personal relationship that she and Liz have.) Stay tuned for an upcoming review of a novel (The Matter with Morris) which does feature an inappropriate reliance on an Afghan story line — like you, I often find that topicality often makes it more difficult for a novel to succeed.

    I have been reading Urquhart for 20 years now (with only seven novels in 24 years of writing, she is not prolific) and have found every one to be worthwhile. I fully expect to see this book on the Giller shortlist — who knows where it might go from there.

  5. Isabel Says:

    I look forward to anything that she writes.

    She ROCKS in my book.

  6. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin this inspired me to check out my Jane Urquhart shelf and I see that I have Away sitting unread and that it will segue well into my current Irish reading, so thank you. Just browsing a little book of essays on Jane Urquhart’s writing and I see she says “Canada is the perfect place to use your imagination in relation to history because our history has not really been adequately explained to us”, which seems to fit her motives with Sanctuary Line too.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    That last sentence pretty much sums up Urquhart’s approach to her fiction in my experience — although I would add that she also uses that platform to explore “and what does this mean now” with equal effectiveness. Both those sentiments apply to Sanctuary Line for sure. And the ancestors in this one are Irsh again — a mix of farmers and lighthouse keepers, trades that they brought to the New World with them.

  8. kimbofo Says:

    Confession time: I have never heard of Urquhart before. Why? She sounds like my kind of writer, and to echo those in the comments above mine, I really love your description of her books as “only 20 yards wide, but they are 300 feet deep” (although I would have preferred the measurements in metric thanks ;-) )

    As dovegreyreader points out, thanks, too for the mention of Away (in competition below), because it sounds like something I’d really love — the whole Irish thing, the immigration thing etc.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I do think Urquhart would suit your tastes. If you like the Brontes, look out also for Changing Heaven if you can find it — its central character is a Bronte scholar but the novel veers off into obsessive love territory, presaging Ian MacEwan, and then a balloonist and partner drop into the novel , presaging Ian MacEwan again. Even if you don’t like MacEwan (I was jokiing on that part, although I have wondered if he borrowed from Urquhart’s book), it is a very good novel.

    And given your Australian background, I think you would find some interesting echoes in The Stone Carvers. While the novel does cover several generations, an Urquhart characteristic, the central image is the Canadian WWI war memorial at Vimy Ridge where the Dominion troops were basically used as fodder, not unlike troops from the other Dominions elsewhere, a point Urquhart does not hesitate to make.

    Sorry about the Imperial measurement — but given the author’s penchant for featuring the Old Country in her books, it does seem more appropriate.

  10. kimbofo Says:

    Another confession: I haven’t read any of the Brontes. I know, I know, I know. I always figured I could read the classics in my old age ;-) But I do like McEwan, or at least the handful of his books I have read, so I’m fairly certain I’d like Urquart’s stuff. And the WW1 references are handy. Pretty sure my dad and other half went to Vimy Ridge during their exploration of WW1 battlefields a couple of years ago, so it might even be the kind of book my dad would like.

  11. dovegreyreader Says:

    So I settle down to read my ‘looking very read’, but surely not by me, copy of Away last night wondering how on earth I can have missed this one and as I read I’m thinking’ why does this remind me of another book?’ So much that is so familiar and checking back I see I did read it back in April 2006 on the back of my illness-induced start to finish read of Margaret Atwood, which left me desperate for more CanLit. I’m pleading that is was the drugs I was on:-) I see I read The Whirlpool a couple of weeks later but I don’t seem to have read The Underpainter so I’m heading there next.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kim: If he has actually been to Vimy Ridge — and if he likes fiction (since there is a lot of back story to the book) — I think your dad would like The Stone Carvers a lot, since the theme of the story is about how traumas of the past (the war, in this case; the potato famine in Away) affect generations in the present.

    dgr: I’m sure it was the drugs that caused the memory lapse. And I will be interested to see how a quilter takes to The Underpainter, because it seems to me that the “underpainting” in the novel is not unlike the layers of imaging and history that a quilter works with in producing her art.

  13. Wandering Coyote Says:

    I have to say…I am really struggling with this book! Let me emphasize that Jane is one of my favourite writers EVER and for those of you who haven’t read Away, get on it! It’s brilliant. My personal fave is The Underpainter which is in my “top three novels ever” list.

    But, OMG, Sanctuary Line is boring me to death. I’m on page 83 and it’s all completely expository so far and this is really putting me off. The prose is less beautiful than her previous books. The only reason I’m sticking with it is because A) I’m a loyal Jane fan and surely this has to turn around sometime and B) I know there is a historical section coming up and usually I love those parts of her books. I am just so…disappointed. I also have a review copy for M&S, and I am very tempted to write the rep and ask her if I have to finish this! Normally, if something bores me this much, I ditch it after a few chapters, but like I said, I am a loyal Jane fan and am going to stick with it a little longer.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    wc: I think you need to persevere, although I can understand your issue. I too love Urquhart and found A Map of Glass impossible. I certainly did not have that problem with this book (my comparison would be Away) but I do have to agree that if you don’t make contact with her work in the early stages, it is a struggle. It might be a good idea to set it aside for a few days and then give it another go — I do think that Urquhart is a novelist who wants you to be in the right mood when you pick her up.

  15. teza Says:

    I have only recently discovered your weblog and have been enjoying reading your erudite reviews. When I stumbled upon this, of one of my favourite Canadian authors, I was inspired to reply.

    I have been a fan of Jane for many years, reserving a place for her opon a pedestal upon which remains heads and shoulders above many other female writers here in Canada.] I was introduced to her via her poetry and soon discovered her early fiction: Away, The Whirlpool and Stone Carvers remain firm favourites. I noticed a shift with ‘A Map of Glass’ but still found it somewhat enjoyable.

    Unfortunately, I struggled with Sanctuary Line. Similar to another respondant, I found myself bored within the first fifty pages. Out of sheer loyalty I decided to persevere, and for the most part was happy that I did. As you mention, hers is not a prolific library and for those diehard fans, we tend to savour every available morsel that she places before us. I am not about to give up just yet!

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    teza: Jane Urquhart is a very meticulous writer and I find that sometimes that means I struggle with engaging in a novel in the opening pages — as you did with this one. And occasionally (A Map of Glass for one) I can’t engage at all. Having said that, she is one of my favorite authors as well. Her works are challenging and I appreciate that — because there is a substantial reward for the effortl. I also find that she is an author who is very rewarding to read a second time — I am less preoccupied by the detailed set-up and more aware of the nuances that are being explored.

  17. Cherine Badwi-Hlady Says:

    Just finished this book and having read your review and the comments can’t add anything new really except to say I fell in the “OMG this book bored me to death but I persevered because I love Jane Urquhart” camp. The only redeeming parts were the uncle’s crazy stories about the family history. Everything else, bleh. And if I read the word “bifurcating” one more time, someone was going to get hurt. I was going to read Away next, but I think I need to take a bit of a breather from Ms Urquhart. I am going to read Toibin’s The Master instead.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cherine: Well, Away has a little more pace to it than Sanctuary Line, but I suspect The Master is a better choice.

  19. Sherri Hext Says:

    KevinfromCanada :
    I heard Jane read at Stratford last summer & took lots of notes to share with my Bookworms {1 of my 4 book discussion groups}. This is the second time I’ve chosen one of her books, with The Stone Carvers being the first. I also attended her reading of that novel.
    Not only is Jane an impressive writer, she is also an extremely warm & generous person. She remembered me from all those years ago & thanked me for again choosing her latest novel.
    Next Wednesday evening, Feb. 8th is the night we’ll be looking into our own thoughts, her personal comments & several on-line reviews, including KevinfromCanada !!!
    I am so glad I discovered your review plus the comments from other avid readers of Jane Urquhart. Thanks for making all of this interesting material available to us.

    ***One thing I found interesting from her Stratford presentation was that without any conscious effort she’d included several “M” characters and themes. I’ll leave it to you to search them out, but will start you off with one from each category: Mandy & migration.
    Have fun discovering many more !!!

    Sherri {Petrolia, Ontario}

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sherri: Thanks for your comment and good luck with your discussion. I have read all eight of Jane Urquhart’s novels and suspect that I am somewhat out of step with my preferences — I’d put The Underpainter on top, just ahead of Away and Changing Heaven. Alas, I read all three before I started blogging so no review here. I think it is fair to say that every one of her novels supplies many thoughts for discussion.

  21. David Says:

    I bought this one not long after you posted your review, Kevin, but have only just been prompted to read it as a result of it being released here in the UK last month (which incidentally means it should be eligible for this year’s Booker). And I’m so glad I did – goodness knows why I’d been putting it off, as I enjoyed Urquhart’s “The Stone Carvers” when I read that a number of years ago, and I thought this one was excellent too – your description of it as 20 yards wide but 300 feet deep is spot on. I really enjoyed all the themes of migration and transition, genetic memory/family history, cycles of destruction and rebirth, those pivotal moments of action or inaction that can either avert or cause catastrophe… it’s definitely one I’m going to be thinking about for several days to come.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Looking back at the review, I find I remember some (not all) of the themes better than I remember much of the action or the characters in the novel. Actually, I would say that is probably typical of my reaction to most Urquhart novels. I would not describe this as an “easy” read and can understand why some find it frustrating — it is one I intend to revisit at some point but I suspect that there are other Urquhart’s that I will go back to first.

    • David Says:

      Funny you should say that, Kevin – at one point in the story the Uncle quizzes Mandy about the four ways in which a person can enter a book, the answer being “emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually and philosophically”. For me ‘Sanctuary Line’ without question succeeds at the middle two (and possibly the last), but if it had one failing it was that I couldn’t really connect emotionally with any of the characters. I don’t demand that every work of fiction I read move me, but I find it is nearly always the emotional component that lifts a book from being one I like a great deal to one I love. I thought ‘Sanctuary Line’ was superb, but it’s not a novel I could say I loved, and like you I imagine the characters will slip from my memory over time.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Thanks for bringing up that reference, which I certainly did not notice when I read the book itself. I second your assessment, although with a minor caveat. Of the four characteristics on the list, “emotionally” is probably least important to me and where I often diverge from other tastes in not liking a book (Emma Donaghue’s Room comes to mind). Having said that, I also agree that when a novel can succeed in achieving that component as well as two, if not three, of the others, it does move into at least approaching greatness.

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