At the centre of Jane Urquhart’s new novel is Flight and Its Allegories, a mural painted by the Canadian artist Kenneth Lochhead for the airport in Gander, Newfoundland. This picture links the various time frames and characters of The Night Stages, a novel that itself focuses on flight, both literal and figurative.
Tamara Edgeworth is a former auxiliary pilot who leaves England after the Second World War and settles in Ireland’s County Kerry. She starts a lengthy affair with a troubled and emotionally remote man named Niall; the book opens as she is fleeing her home and her fractured relationship. When her plane is grounded in Gander due to fog, she is left with many hours to examine Lochhead’s mural and imagine the stories behind the figures. As she does so, her life, and the lives of Niall and his estranged brother Kieran, are revealed in fragments. Urquhart also includes a fascinating semi-fictionalized version of Lochhead and the inspiration for the people in the mural.
Much of the action takes place in Ireland, and Urquhart proves sensitive to the plight of the Irish who had to leave their homeland to survive. It should come as no surprise to Urquhart’s readers that she paints vivid pictures with words, and the intense connection to place, both beautiful and dangerous, is paramount. She also delves deeply into the emotions of her characters – driven, or perhaps flung about, by the need for connection and the inability to find it.
Angst splatters across every page of this relentlessly serious novel. All the characters suffer from loneliness: they are trapped in their own worlds, and while they may strive to understand family members and lovers, the bonds are not strong enough to erase the solitude of their lives. Instead, these very bonds are the source of even more pain. In an unusual twist, the happiest person in the novel is the artist, Lochhead, although he undergoes trauma in the nasty world of art criticism.
The Night Stages is meticulously constructed with visible stitches holding the complicated plotlines together. For example, Niall is a meteorologist, and the weather in Kerry is dramatic – like the emotional lives of the characters. It’s all interior, though, and it’s all third person. And like the fog that grounds planes, this novel has an opaqueness that keeps its characters just out of reach.