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Sanctuary Line

by Jane Urquhart

It is not a fictional location, but in Jane Urquhart’s hands, Southern Ontario has become an entire imagined world, much like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Urquhart returns once again to this literary landscape in her latest work, a melancholy history of a family of orchardists living on the north shore of Lake Erie.

Narrated by Liz Crane, the last remaining member of the Butler family, Sanctuary Line is a story of decay – ­topographical, familial, and moral. “I live in a landscape where absence confronts me daily,” laments Liz, an entomologist who has returned to the now-derelict family farm to monitor the migration of monarch butterflies. Mourning her charismatic but unstable Uncle Stanley, who vanished years earlier, and her cousin Mandy, a military strategist killed in Afghanistan, Liz becomes absorbed with the task of recreating the events that led to her family’s disintegration.

Through flashbacks to her childhood, a narrative slowly emerges. Liz, we learn, is the “summer cousin,” a city girl who returns every summer to the thriving fruit farm operated by her uncle. Stanley is an industrious agriculturalist, employing migrant Mexican workers to till his land and inventing new methods of chemical irrigation to enhance the crops. Liz and her cousins frolic among the trees and swim in the glimmer of the lake. They are ignorant of the dark secrets that Stanley is hoarding, secrets that will ultimately lead to the family’s fall and expulsion from this Eden.

Of course, paradise is relative; the Butler farm is no Eden for the Mexican labourers who are shipped in via cargo plane and sleep in cramped bunkhouses throughout the growing season. If the farm provides a picturesque portrait of respectable Canadian life, these workers lurk constantly in the shadows of the frame.

Woven into the narrative are Stanley’s myths of the Butler “great-greats” – the family’s Irish ancestors, all of whom worked as either farmers or lighthouse-­keepers. These stories are among the novel’s highlights, juxtaposing the material of 18th- and 19th-century romance against the staid, unruffled composure of small-town Ontario. Uncle Stanley fortifies the Butler myth with tales of the great-greats’ fabled adventures – tales of ships lost at sea, drowned orphans, and long-separated lovers.

Like her uncle, Liz is a gifted storyteller. But for Liz, remembering is an exercise in reconstruction, shaping the past as a way of making sense of it. “What can I do with all that ambiguity and doubt?” she asks. “There is no information I can bring to it, no light I can shine on it to make it any clearer.” She can be a frustrating narrator, withholding and secretive, but her fragmented perspective mirrors the non-linear nature of memory itself.

Few of the book’s characters escape comparisons to the monarchs. In addition to symbolizing Liz’s migration to and from the Butler farm, the butterflies are used to describe young Mandy’s shy teenage years (“the chrysalis phase”) and even the end of the family line: “It will die in flight, without mating,” Liz says, “and the exquisite possibilities it carries in its cells and in the thrall of its migration will simply never come to pass.”

Butterflies are just one of many symbolic motifs that pepper the text. Doubles and doppelgängers ripple throughout the novel, which also teems with references to glass and reflective surfaces that serve to isolate characters, refract images, and distort perceptions.

The novel’s overreliance on symbolism can grate, but from a narrative perspective, it results from Liz’s attempt to reconstruct an ordered world where everything makes sense, something the scientific method is incapable of. “The thing about scientific system taxonomy … is that while it pretends to inject predictability and comfort into our world, it can’t really cause either of these states to come into being.”

Liz’s narrative engenders an inescapable intimacy with her character and the landscape, but unfortunately the other Butlers are not as fully formed. Mandy and Stanley, two figures whose losses should be deeply and viscerally felt, never really become more than names. Their personalities and inner lives are described, but not experienced. The material that could have been devoted to character development instead falls victim to rambling rhetoric and empty prose. For example, Liz argues, “I might have become acquainted with the hesitancy, the frailty of spirit that attends certain kinds of love, as well as the baffling tenacity of a passion as difficult as Mandy’s appeared to be.” It all sounds extraordinarily pretty, but the writing is bloated: it manages to say a great deal that means very little.

The novel’s pacing is also hindered by this tendency to veer into poetic, yet often vapid, digression. It bogs the story down, making it difficult to care what happens to characters that have already been given short shrift.

The story does pick up as it nears its climax, however, and comes to a poignant, somber close as Liz’s history finally comes into focus. Sanctuary Line is, ultimately, a sensitive meditation on the fragile but inexorable ties between place, identity, and history. In it, Urquhart simultaneously honours and destabilizes the tradition of Canadian pastoral.


Reviewer: Emily Landau

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $29.99

Page Count: 288 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-77108-646-5

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 2010-11

Categories: Fiction: Novels