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A Map of Glass

by Jane Urquhart

On a winter’s night a man stumbles toward a great frozen lake, confused and disoriented. Months later his body, arms outstretched as if in supplication or an embrace, washes up in the retreating ice at an island at the juncture of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. It is the very island on which the man’s ancestors once operated substantial logging and shipbuilding businesses. The mystery of Andrew Woodman’s disappearance has been solved, but what he was in search of remains unknown.

From this arresting beginning, Jane Urquhart spins out a story of love and historical geography spanning two centuries and five generations. The narrative is formally and elegantly constructed. Sylvia, a woman claiming to have been Woodman’s lover, boards a train to Toronto to find the young artist, Jerome McNaughton, who discovered Woodman’s body. Jerome is reluctant to meet her; the experience has unsettled and disturbed him. Sylvia perseveres – heroically, we discover, for she is a fragile soul for whom this is an unprecedented journey out of familiar surroundings.

Over the course of several days she becomes an unlikely Scheherazade, recounting the story of the relationship that unlocked her emotional isolation. She also shares the journals in which Woodman chronicled what he knew of his family and the region’s past.
The setting of Urquhart’s much-anticipated sixth novel, her first since 2001, is the eastern end of Lake Ontario and the peninsula that forms Prince Edward County. Urquhart has thoroughly researched the 19th-century history of this area, but anyone looking for faithful representation of the early industrialization of Upper Canada should look elsewhere. Urquhart does not write historical fiction; rather, she forms her own imaginative relationship with history. A Map of Glass reflects her idiosyncratic genre of magical historical geographical realism, in which the land shaped and scarred by human agency speaks as vividly as those who now live on it, and past lives are palpably layered into the present.

Like several characters in her novel, Urquhart seizes upon eloquent artifacts of the past and weaves them together to form her own truths: model papier mâché cities used as battle maps by a foreign king; frescoes painted on the walls of wilderness hotels. She is fascinated by images of hubris: the great timber rafts like floating islands heading downriver to the sea or the hotel in the county buried under the sand dunes denuded of anchoring forests. Alongside her French rivermen and Catholic orphan maids, she mixes elements of the fantastic: a wolf familiar and a man named Ghost who rides a white horse into a burning house.

What animates Urquhart’s broad canvas is human connectedness. Family is a source of pain and shame, but also of comfort and healing. Love, like other human passions, is flawed, tinged with greed and desire for ownership and control. The love that Sylvia’s doctor husband has for her is one that tries to protect but ultimately imprisons her.

Yet love is also powerfully freeing, redemptive, and life-changing. Sylvia, whose “condition” seems to be a form of autism, grew up unable to feel close to others and could not bear to be touched. Yet as a result of her intimate connection with Woodman, she not only feels more deeply but is able to communicate and engage with others. She devotedly makes tactile maps of textured scraps for a blind friend.

Despite the brittleness in the title, this is a story of flow, of water and time. Urquhart demonstrates that central to our condition as humans is coming to terms with the world’s endless mutability without falling into despair. In this struggle, recognizing and bearing witness to the “signs of the former tenant” are crucial if we are to avoid repeating the tragic mistakes of the past. For this reason, art in its many forms is once again a major element in Urquhart’s latest.

A Map of Glass is a serious, mature novel abundantly displaying the power and skill Urquhart has built up over decades in her poetry and prose. Though her work has won her acclaim and made her a fixture on national bestseller lists, her style is not to every taste. Some readers may find the events in A Map of Glass more curious than moving, many characters more colourful than engaging, larger than life in both their greed and their gifts. Some may find the meticulous, elegiac prose at times mannered and a little precious.

But Urquhart’s considerable following, or anyone willing to be seduced by her cadences and suspend historical disbelief, will be moved by the truth in her story and enchanted by its beauty.


Reviewer: Maureen Garvie

Publisher: McClelland and Stewart


Price: $34.99

Page Count: 360 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7710-8727-6

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 2005-9

Categories: Fiction: Novels