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The Underpainter

by Jane Urquhart

Few participants in the First World War remain to swear to its authentic details. Many contemporary novelists propose versions, lest we forget or never know. These writers – Booker-winner Pat Barker is one – allow suffering to resonate; they craft imagery, shave narrative, and dispel our hockey-star notions of heroism.

Jane Urquhart’s The Underpainter revisits 1914 through the memory of a successful American painter, Austin Fraser, a profoundly anti-heroic, selfish narrator who stayed home in New York, safe and absorbed with the esthetics of light, landscape, and distance. He writes his series of confessions at 83, critical of his relationships with women, other artists, Canadians he befriended on summer painting excursions.

As in her bestseller, Away, Urquhart jigsaws and thickens conventional narrative. Again, she links landscape and identity, this time through the intense (and pretentious) perceptions of a painter who sees “landscape as a code for something else.” One of Fraser’s flaws – root of certain tragic complicities – is that he cares only about art; such higher commitment excuses his cruel objectification of Sara, a resident of Silver Inlet Landing on Lake Superior’s north shore and his model for 15 summers, her body his favourite topography. While Urquhart allows Fraser to catalogue his own poor behaviour, she has him tell the stories of several Canadian characters. The Underpainter is not only Austin Fraser’s story, but also the story of these intriguing border dwellers.

Urquhart’s novels are often summarized with the cliché “exquisitely crafted,” which might only mean Urquhart is obvious in her respect for sentences. She is, of course, capable of stylish, evocative imagery. But she is also prone to overwriting and melodrama. An early chapter begins, “There is always a moment of wholeness, recollected when the world is torn, raw-edged, broken apart, a moment when the tidiness, the innocence of landscape – sometimes of the society that created the landscape – allows you to predict with accuracy the discord to come.” Chapter endings stagger under repetition and overstatement. Some of this excess can be blamed on Austin Fraser’s aging, grieving voice, but authors should edit their narrators’ unreadable moments.

Urquhart is a writer to trust, though; characters are so finely detailed that she disappears, allowing for chapters of sweet absorption. This is also an art-lover’s novel. While some of the artists she depicts are fictional, others, such as teacher Robert Henri and the Ash Can group, are historical figures. And in Austin Fraser’s drive to translate lake Superior’s cold onto canvas – funded by his father’s capital – there is a suggestion of Lawren Harris.


Reviewer: Lorna Jackson

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $29.99

Page Count: 340 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7710-8664-4

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1997-8

Categories: Fiction: Novels