Tuesday, November 20, 2012
A very fine novel by one of Canada's master fiction writers. In the typical Urquhart mold, this is a novel about the past, the land and art, subjects found in many of her previous novels. A young artist, Jerome, is alone on Timber Island to take photos of temporary art creations, or “absences”, he has dug in the snow. While there, he finds the body of Andrew Woodman, an Alzheimer’s sufferer, frozen in the ice of the river. Later, an older woman, Sylvia, searches out Jerome and his girlfriend in Toronto. Slightly autistic, she has fled her doctor husband in rural eastern Ontario because she wants to talk to Jerome about Andrew, her lover. The three sections of the book are intelligently constructed, with the two contemporary sections framing the central section, which recounts the history of the Woodman family, 19th century shipbuilders and hotelkeepers on Lake Ontario. Urquhart’s writing is extremely resonant and always echoes her larger themes: “How wonderful the snow was; every change of direction, each whim, even the compulsion of hunger was marked on its surface, like memory, for a brief season.” Her writing is also highly cerebral – little happens in this novel but there is an enormous quantity of thoughtful reflection. The depiction of the Woodman past, with its near-mythical characters and its grand hotel invaded by sand, is so deeply realized that the present feels amorphous in contrast, its characters infused with the ambiguity of modernism. In the end, however, Urquhart shows how this makes perfect sense for, with profound subtlety, she raises a startling question: In the face of shocking change—in landscapes, in memories that fade to nothing, even in the complete dissolution of the human personality in Alzheimer’s—what can still be called reality? Urquhart is a subtle master at work.