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The Night Stages by Jane Urquhart

When the new novel by Jane Urquhart, The Night Stages, came in the door a few weeks ago it went straight to the top of my “to read” pile.

The Night Stages takes place fifteen years after the end of the Second World War – long enough that people are getting on with their lives, but not long enough for them to forget the intensity of their experiences during that time.

We first meet Kenneth Lochhead as he is returning to his prairie home from Gander. We then meet Tamara Edgeworth arriving in Gander on a transatlantic flight on a Constellation – an aircraft with oval windows, propellers – at that time a very modern and popular airplane. When I was a child in the 1960s my family made many transatlantic flights on this airplane – with re-fueling stops in Gander, Newfoundland and Shannon, Ireland before going on to Europe or Africa. Tamara was a flyer during the war, transporting planes from one place to another all over the British Isles. Women did not fly in combat but they certainly flew every type of aircraft ferrying planes as needed.

We learn that Tamara grew up in Cornwall and has been living in a small village in Ireland since the war ended. She has been involved in a relationship with Niall Riordan – one that she is leaving on this flight to Gander – the reasons revealed as we read. Her voyage is interrupted by fog when the plane stops for re-fueling in Gander. We learn about Tamara’s relationship with Niall, and why she is leaving, and we learn about Niall’s brother, Keiran, and the story of the rift between them that has haunted Niall all of his life.

There Tamara sits – gazing at the mural by Kenneth Lochhead. The link between the stories of Tamara and Kenneth. Chapters alternate with the stories of these two, which I sometimes found frustrating. Just as I was losing myself in the story of one, I was removed to the story of the other. However, I gradually realized this back and forth storyline made me slow down and patiently wait for the next chapter. The Night Stages is not a book to whip through - it is a book to savor.

While Tamara sits in the fog in Gander her life in Ireland, and before, is revealed. She gazes at the mural, losing herself in the images, seeing her own ghosts in her memories, as perhaps everyone does. Tamara struggles with belonging – wonders if she will always be an interloper in Ireland and in Niall’s life.  “You English are only here for the view,” he said once. “There’s no reality in it.” 

This is a book about art, and artists – real and imagined – it is about love, about marriage, about family – it is about Ireland and the prairies. It is about what is lost to us in this life – and what is found. It is about betrayal, and second chances. About the past, and the strength of memory – the absence of someone sometimes more real that those who are here. About the present and our capacity to examine our lives and find direction – to sometimes know what to do about the future and to make decisions that will change our lives in the future, though not knowing, of course, if it will turn out to be right or wrong.

The week I spent slowly reading this book was a week of such enjoyment. I wanted to get to the end, but I wanted it not to end. . Other reviews have revealed things that I will not – as I believe that some of the pleasure in reading this novel was in not knowing the real story behind the fiction.

It was all I could do not to go to the computer and look up information about the artist Kenneth Lochhead and the mural at the airport in Gander, Newfoundland – next I’m booking a flight to Gander and I suspect many readers of The Night Stages will do the same.

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