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"Look out the window...,
This review is from: Sanctuary Line (Hardcover)
"... 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, Liz feels she needs to reconnect with all that is familiar from the past. She lets her memories return to the fun-filled summers of her childhood, spent amongst her cousins and the rest of the extended family. They bring to mind the annual migration of the Monarch butterflies that she now and studies at the nearby Sanctuary Research Centre. Important questions have lingered on about the whereabouts of some loved ones. Will her going through the remnants of memorabilia kept in the farmhouse 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. 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. Reminiscences also take her back to Teo, the Mexican boy, whom she got to know over several summers at the farm. His mother was one of the Mexicans working there each season. They had become close friends, until... "There is no one, no one left. I live in a landscape where absence confronts me daily," she reflects, and later on: "Hardly ever has memory been good for people..."
Multi-generational family sagas, reaching back in time to Irish immigration to North America, are one of Urquhart's familiar themes. In SANCTUARY LINE the primary storyteller is uncle Stan, who captures Liz's attention with his absorbing tales of the family's forbearers, the "Great-greats". His recounting of the past history of the Butlers is revealed in small, apparently disconnected, summer installments. Liz's mind, recalling his stories, is also not linear, wandering in and out of memory snippets. Central to the family characteristics, beginning in Ireland, is "bifurcation": between farmers and lighthouse keepers, and in North America between those settlers on the southern shore and those on the northern side of Lake Erie. Family dramas and politics are alluded to over and over again. Still, Liz keeps wondering how much of Stan's rich lore was based on fact and how much a construction of his creative mind, deliberately invented for the benefit of the children.
Having read most of Urquhart's previous novels and enjoyed her insightful realization of engaging characters and her often lyrical and vivid evocation of the beautiful and diverse landscapes in Southern Ontario, SANCTUARY LINE feels quite familiar in that respect. Yet, for this novel, the author has taken a new, and for me, more intimate approach to story telling. Creating, for the first time, an authentic first person female voice, she allows the reader to feel like an intimate companion to Liz's inner voice. She even appears to invite us to "look out the window" with her into her young girl's persona and life. With the hindsight and distance of a mature person, yet filled with deep emotion and unresolved questions, she brings the past to life for her and our benefit.
By allowing Liz's memories to wander effortlessly - and seemingly randomly - between present and past, yet also subtly linking the two spheres by dropping clues and small hints to future situations, Urquhart, in fact, spins a beautifully crafted delicate, yet sturdy, and increasingly tightly structured story web. It captures scattered shards of Liz's memory, splinters from Stan's imaginative and sometimes wild family stories, and builds on strong connecting threads of love and friendship, loss and happiness. It is up to the reader to carefully assemble the numerous and recurring references to individuals and relationships that will be revisited again and again, revealing a bit more each time until they are eventually explained.
Monarchs appear regularly every summer on the Butler farm and the symbolism of their migratory conduct is evident to Liz, who monitors their behaviour. She understands their genetically imprinted sense of orientation and interconnectedness through several generations that makes them return to their summer breeding grounds. In her ruminations she returns to their image, recalls their presence in the "butterfly tree", admires their strengths as a swarm but also recognizes their fragility when migration patterns are in jeopardy or one butterfly is straying from the predetermined path. The parallels to her understanding of her family and human behaviour in general are evident and very aptly described. Sometimes the connections to the story web seem somewhat arbitrary and tenuous and are in danger of getting lost in the midst of everything else. [Friederike Knabe]