the guardian Fri 13 January 2012
Jane Urquhart is a novelist for whom the past holds more interest than the present, and the job of the main character in each of her books is to explain something that happened years before. Liz Crane, narrator of her seventh novel, is an entomologist who has moved back to her family's derelict fruit farm in southern Ontario, where she researches the migration of monarch butterflies and reflects on the catastrophe that tore the household apart and ended her childhood.
Though there are many hints, exactly what happened is not revealed until the end, and I won't spoil it. But the part played by Liz's charismatic uncle Stanley will come as no surprise. From the outset he is the centre around which life on the farm turns, and his disappearance, following the crisis, is one of the mysteries the adult Liz still struggles to understand.
She is haunted too by the death of her cousin Mandy, killed on active duty in Afghanistan. Much of the early part of the novel is devoted to describing the two girls' sisterly intimacy, how they spent the long summers wrapped up in the same view of their small world. Now Liz spends her time reading the poetry books Mandy loved, and reproaching herself for not having been more sympathetic about her unhappy affair with a senior military officer. Teo, the son of one of her uncle's Mexican farmworkers and Liz's first love, is another ghost, and their gradually unfolding teenage romance is the most tenderly handled strand of the story.
In a past tense rich with nostalgia, and a voice filled with regret, Urquhart builds up a picture of a vanished idyll, a thriving fruit farm populated by an extended family sure of its place in the world. Through the vivid stories told by her uncle she takes us further back into the past: we learn about the branch of the family that settled on the other side of the Great Lakes in Ohio, the ancestors who became lighthouse keepers and saw their sons dashed to pieces on the rocks.
"Sometimes I feel the past will eat me alive, will devour me in the same way that the now abundantly overgrown cedar bush is devouring the pioneer rail fences on which, as children, we used to stand in order to watch the Mexicans work. I fear I will become one of those women you sometimes see buying groceries in town, unkempt, vaguely mad, barely present, and talking quietly to herself as she pushes the cart in a bewildered fashion toward the vegetable section, a woman not unlike the woman my aunt was in her last years."
Urquhart's prose brims with such emotional sensitivity, but having allowed Liz to identify the danger in her situation, will she set her free? For most of the novel this seems unlikely. The pull of the past is so magnetic it is hard to detect any forward pressure all. Liz has nothing to distract her as the tension builds to her account of "that final strange night".
Marvellous novels have been written about such innocence-ending moments, most famously LP Hartley's The Go-Between. Generally the narration of such stories, looking back at the events described, puts them in some kind of perspective. Unfortunately, the device chosen by Urquhart to frame her story is a clanger. In a sentimental and wildly implausible 20-page epilogue she brings on dead Mandy's lover, and reveals that Liz is telling the story of her youth to him. Worse, she uses her novel's final section to offer her thoughts on Islam, for Mandy's "Mister Military" turns out to be a Canadian Muslim who, when they were lovers, was on the road to becoming an imam. Like Liz with Teo, the relationship ended in tragedy, leading Liz, back with her butterflies, to compare the people who undertake "those difficult migrations, over great stretches of open water, and across vast tracts of land, to and from Mexico, or America, or Kandahar" with the migrating monarchs who live for just six weeks.
And so Urqhuart, the Canadian descendant of Irish immigrants, appears to suggest that human migrations are doomed to fail. In Afghanistan the Canadian Muslim finds prayer is the only comfort, while relations between the Ontario farmers and their Mexican workers are a disaster. I knew her sensibility was conservative, romantic, but I was dismayed by the moral of this melancholy story and taken aback that such a distinguished novelist could be so narrow-minded.