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The Stone Carvers

by Jane Urquhart

From The Stone Carvers’ first pages, we are among the stuff of fairytale: a woodcarver, a seamstress, a king with the power to grant wishes, a child who wanders the world, a questing heroine disguised as a man. Such Old World fable leavens the harsh New World where Irish and Bavarian immigrants hack a foothold out of the forests of southwestern Ontario, “trying to force Western culture on a place where it undoubtedly had no place to be.” For those who left behind Europe’s famines and persecution, it is bitter irony when the Great War summons their grandsons back across the sea, returning them broken and maimed, or not at all.

Jane Urquhart takes on large ideas here: religion, obsession, sex, history, love. But her overarching theme is once again the power of art – in this case, carving – to give meaning to incomprehensible suffering and loss. The book’s second half centres around a historical figure, Walter Allward, sculptor of the massive Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge.

The monumental conclusion is, however, the book’s least successful section. As private individuals – a heartbroken woman, a maimed soldier, an Italian immigrant’s son – contribute their gifts as carvers to the vast work that redeems both public and personal tragedy, it’s hard to suppress a peculiarly Canadian cynicism that hears rising violins and envisions roiling cinematic closeups.

What works best are Urquhart’s ravishing images (like the farmer who each spring plows up a fresh crop of mud-soaked Bibles – French, English, German – from the fields of war) that have the potential to alter how we see life. She also has a mesmerizing ability to animate the past, calling up events and eras with extraordinary clarity and imbuing them with wonder and marvel. For all its preoccupation with stone, this is a much warmer book than The Underpainter.


Reviewer: Maureen Garvie

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $34.99

Page Count: 388 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7710-8686-5

Released: Apr.

Issue Date: 2001-4

Categories: Fiction: Novels