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Spring preview 2015: novels

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(photo: Mark Raynes Roberts)

SETTING THE STAGE

A misremembered anecdote concerning the writer Simone de Beauvoir served as the genesis for Jane Urquhart’s ninth novel. When de Beauvoir was in the process of leaving her American lover, Nelson Algren, she found herself stranded for three days at Newfoundland’s Gander airport due to fog.

That, at least, is the story.

“It turned out I made that up,” Urquhart says. “She would have had to go through Gander airport, but she was not stranded.”

This piece of apocrypha spurred the author to create Tamara, a “purely fictional” British woman who traces de Beauvoir’s journey in reverse, from England to New York, becoming fogbound at Gander en route. As it happens, Urquhart’s novel, The Night Stages (McClelland & Stewart), was aided in its development by the author’s revised opinion of de Beauvoir. “I subsequently discovered that I no longer really loved [her] work,” Urquhart says. “And I was very upset about what I had come to know about her politics.”

True to form, Urquhart had other competing interests during the composition of her novel, an intimate epic set in the years before and after the Second World War, and ranging from Ireland’s County Kerry to England to Newfoundland’s storied airport. “With me, when I’m writing a book, I have to be interested in more than one thing.”

A fascination with an Irish bicycle race was one factor in the novel’s development. “Which, believe me, was a surprise, because I have a very low sports IQ,” Urquhart says with a laugh. “But let’s hope it rose a few notches as a result of writing this book.” Another element was “a very under-regarded” mural by modernist painter Kenneth Lochhead, which graces the walls of Gander.

The final thing, Urquhart says, was giving up her cottage in rural Ireland, a second home she had maintained for two decades. The novel, she says, became “a way of honouring” the cottage and the country in which it is situated.

This is not the first time the author has used Ireland as a setting for her fiction. Away – the Urquhart novel arguably most central in the popular psyche, not least as a result of its appearance on the 2013 edition of Canada Reads – was also set on the Emerald Isle. Like her feelings about de Beauvoir’s work, however, Urquhart’s relationship to the country has changed in the interim.

“When I wrote Away,” she says, “I actually knew very little about the real Ireland.” Living there has provided the author with a first-hand glimpse of what the culture and the people are like, beyond the stories she had gleaned from her maternal uncles – third- or fourth-generation Canadians who had never actually visited Ireland, but who considered it a kind of “sacred homeland.” The Night Stages “felt, I suppose, as though I were revisiting that country but this time with some real knowledge under my belt.” – Steven Beattie