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Reading: Jane Urquhart

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 Jane Urquhart will be the next author to read from her work at the Charles W. Stockey Centre, on Tuesday,  Oct. 21 at 7:30 p.m.

 Jane Urquhart has won many literary awards from many countries, but her novels are very Canadian. She  writes about our own history and our place in the world, whether it is the Canadians who fought at Vimy  Ridge in her novel The Stone Carvers, or the early Irish immigrants in an earlier best selling novel Away.

Many of Jane Urquhart’s novels have to do with art and artists. The Underpainter, winner of the 1997 Governor General’s Award, especially. In an interview Urquhart says, for her, the book is “about the redemptive nature of making art. I always hope that a book will teach me something that I didn’t know that I knew. By the time I’m finished I want to know something I didn’t know when I started.” Not art for art’s sake, but at the same time, “it needs not be the great big huge work of art either — just making something: just taking experience, reshaping it and reordering it — whether that experience be celebratory or terribly tragic — is redemptive.” Married to visual artist, Tony Urquhart, and studying art history has had an influence, and the literature that results is a fascinating mix of art and history.

Jane Urquhart has spent a great deal of time on the shores of Lake Ontario, east of Toronto. Many of her novels are set in the area, where the ties between that part of the province and the United States, just across the lake, were once much stronger than they are today.

A Map of Glass, Jane Urquhart’s most recent book, takes place in Prince Edward County. A place removed from the mainland, sticking out into the lake, surrounded by water. Prince Edward county has been the lifelong home of Sylvia Bradley, and of her ancestors, who lumbered the land, until there were no more trees. There are houses that have been deserted, a hotel where the sand is burying the past “they would have to climb a dune in order to enter the hotel by the door that had led to the upper balcony.”

Sylvia is a woman who has seen little of the world, is perhaps afraid of it, or perhaps, is simply smothered by an over-protective husband. Her husband, Malcolm, knows nothing of Sylvia’s affair of many years with Andrew, a man who disappears one winter day. It is Jerome, a young Toronto installation artist, who finds Andrew and who is then found by Sylvia. When they meet Sylvia says to Jerome “You came across him accidentally and so…so did I, and I’ve come to believe that without these accidents there really is nothing to life at all.”

Jane Urquhart writes, “The previous morning, after Malcolm had left for the clinic, she had filled an old suitcase with stockings, one blue skirt and cardigan, underwear, a few cosmetics, two well-used green leather notebooks, a plastic bag containing squares of felt, scraps of fabric and wool, one antique album, and a worn hardcover book. Then she had lifted the bag from the bed where she had packed it and had placed it in the unused cupboard of the spare room.” And then, “in a small town thirty miles down the lakeshore, a woman woke early. There was no sound coming from the street below. Darkness was still pressed against her bedroom windows.”

Sylvia leaves, alone, to make her way to Toronto to find Jerome, to tell her story and that of her ancestors and, without knowing so, to give Jerome the information he needs to come to terms with his own past. This is a rich and complex novel, a pleasure to read both for the writing itself, and for the glimpse into this particular time and place, and the woman who inhabits it.

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