I’ve always had a hands-down favourite novel by Jane Urquhart: Changing Heaven, with its evocation of Wuthering Heights, its Heathcliff and Catherine emotions expressed in wounding relationships confined to the rooms in which the torrid, raw, unbalanced affairs take place, its poetic linking of weather and wind that is sometimes interchangeable with characters and certainly reflects their moods, and the way a painting, this time by Tintoretto, unites characters and stories lines.
In the Scuola San Rocco in Venice, visitors are provided with substantial, framed mirrors to help view about sixty of Tintoretto’s 16th century masterpieces on the ceilings. During my visit, in addition to the mirror, I was also carrying around the memory of the putative Urquhart’s observations of them. She is right that the devil wears pink silk in "The Temptation of Christ." Her observation of this as similar to the more expected dress of the princess in his "St. George and the Dragon," (in London’s National Gallery) is accompanied by the surprising observation that the princess is “trying to get out of the painting” more than she is trying to escape the rather flimsy dragon. In Changing Heaven, a budding Tintoretto scholar is always imagining himself inside the paintings. At 15, seeing his first Tintoretto at the Art Gallery of Ontario, he wants to “swim the waters of the distant canal and walk the distant hills,” but more than anything he wants to “click his cleats on the marble-tiled floor... to pace out the carefully measured perspective the artist has painted there.”
Throughout Changing Heaven there also is a masterful celebration of an oral tradition, with storytelling that goes on for a century and with the character, Jeremy Jacobs, who gives himself the stage name “Sindbad of the Skies,” pointing us toward the middle-eastern folk tale, “Sindbad the Sailor,” included in Western translations of what we know as The Arabian Nights or One Thousand and One Nights.
In 2005 Urquhart was named an Officer of The Order of Canada. Her first novel, The Whirlpool, was also the first Canadian book to received Le prix du meilleur livre étranger (Best Foreign Book Award) in France. The Literary Review (UK) called her next book, Changing Heaven, “An accomplished novel which boldly explores new ground.” Urquhart’s third novel, Away, remained on the Globe and Mail Bestseller list for 132 weeks (the longest of any Canadian book). It also won the Trillium Award for fiction and was a finalist for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The Underpainter, Urquhart’s next novel, won her the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. The Stone Carvers, perhaps Urquhart’s most famous work, was called “breathtaking” by TIME, was nominated for The Giller Prize and long-listed for The Booker. A Map of Glass was released in the fall of ’05. Urquhart is also the author of a collection of short fiction, Storm Glass, and three books of poetry. She received the Marian Engel Award in 1994 for an outstanding body of prose written by a Canadian woman, and is a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France. She has also been given numerous honorary doctorates from Canadian universities.
As my hands-down favourite, Changing Heaven may just have lost its winning place to The Night Stages, where every one of the above themes and narrative devices occur again. This time the story unfolds in a series of memories for a handful of key characters with the present action, or frame story, of the book almost all taking place for one character, Tamara, grounded by fog in the departure lounge of the Gander airport in Newfoundland.
Reminiscent of the early 20th century female balloonist in Changing Heaven, this new novel’s protagonist has also had a career that involved taking to the skies. During WWII, “Tam” flew 47 kinds of planes, often solo, ferrying them among bases in Ireland and England, camouflaging them when needed by taxiing them off runways into orchards and country lanes. Like characters in Changing Heaven, Tam is attempting to escape the agonies of a protracted but dead-end relationship. Two other key characters also find themselves embroiled in 3-way relationships of asymmetrical feelings.
Tam is on her way to New York, having left Ireland to force herself to bring to an end her relationship with Niall, a married man who not only can’t leave his wife, but who says of himself:
I’m a waster, Tamara, I waste things. I waste people. I deplete them. I have never troubled myself to know the value of anyone, anything, not my own abilities, my own good fortune, my family, Susan. The small magical brother I was given was worth ten of me, and I utterly disregarded him.
This story of the brothers is complex and takes a dramatic and surprising turn well into the book. Today the younger brother, Kieran, would probably be diagnosed as bi-polar, but the cause and the even more complex cures involve love and relationships. As a child, after coming across his mother in an intimate conversation with the local druggist, he begins to have tantrums and break-downs. Some years later, he gives an outlet to his fierce personality by training and competing in “The Ras.” The Ras Tailteann is an annual 8-day international cycling race held in Ireland each May. It is held in stages, with the carousing in pubs of each evening colloquially referred to as the “Night Stages.”
Urquhart has always written with great power about unrequited love, loss, and viciously intense relationships. In fact, years after a lot of the details of the story have faded, my strongest memory of The Underpainter is a lingering sense of emotional rejection mirrored by the icy desolation of the landscape. And in Changing Heaven, Arianna says, “Sometimes making love is like a terrible accident ... and then, afterwards you are shipwrecked, broken.” Still, it’s in relation to Kieren, Niall’s brother, that the pain is best summed up: “The hardship of caring for someone was the way that caring insisted on punching through the skin of even the most ordinary day.” Asked once about the pain powerfully portrayed by the young widow in Whirlpool, Urquhart referred to her personal experience of losing her first husband in a car accident: ”I think the fact that Paul died when he did, when we were both so young, allowed me to remember what it was like to experience such a devastating loss early in life, as my characters do in this book.”
Urquhart doesn’t always write about pain, but her characters always live intensely. Tam reflects on the sensation of lift-off in her planes and “recalls her own helplessness in the face of such ridiculous joy.” Kieran is “ridiculous with pride” at successfully constructing his own waffle and daub hut and dances for joy. And, of course, the pain of relationships is proportional to the contrasting moments of great joy.
Landscape, weather and emotion are almost interchangeable in Urquhart’s novels. People are lost in a fog, literally and figuratively; tantrums are an “outburst of the elements"; and terrible pain is reflected in the shrieking wind. In The Night Stages, Niall is a meteorologist whose boss, McWilliams, is a fount of knowledge on many things, able to link weather and literature and history. He likes Wuthering Heights because of the weather in it, he knows the effect of fog on Victor Hugo’s writing of Les Misérables, and could probably talk about the “weather in Croisset during the week that Flaubert was completing page 216 of Bovary." McWilliams knows everything: Irish lakes are dark because of molecules of peat that intercept the path of the light; fog bows occur because the droplets composing them are too small for the spectrum of colour.
In a conversation I once had with her, Urquhart often referred to landscapes and their importance to human sensibility and well-being. Not only are her novels rooted inextricably in a sense of place, but she is as well. Some years ago she became an “International Ambassador” for the rare Charitable Research Reserve in Waterloo Region, perhaps Canada’s largest urban reserve that is neither government owned nor developed, comprising six of eight pre-settlement landscapes with more than 24 different habitat types. As Urquhart puts it, “I think it’s so important that the rare lands be saved. I think we forget how important it is to have some landscape that doesn’t change.”
Urquhart’s sense of loss from a changing landscape is also very personal. Speaking to a journalist some years ago, she reminisced about a property on Lake Ontario that her parents first bought in 1943. Now, more than seventy years on, the commercial lake fishermen she watched as a child from the shoreline and the surrounding pioneer farms where she and her brothers played have disappeared, sacrifices to twentieth century ‘progress.’
“I am put in mind of something I once read," she said, "in the travel journals of Samuel Champlain. When he sailed into Lake Ontario, he was so struck by the beauty of its northern shoreline he commented that the tall greenery of the trees appeared to be garden-like, as if the foliage had been planted for decorative purposes. This is a panorama that none of us will ever be able to see.”
Giving facts a prominent place in a work of fiction is a delightful, speculative way to make sense of them. It brings together history and the imagination, offering rich detail for possible contexts. As Tam nods off to sleep and awakens time and again over the 48 hours that she waits for a flight out, she contemplates the 22-metre mural on the wall in front of her. It’s called "Flight and its Allegories," painted by real-life artist Kenneth Lochhead in 1957-58 while the terminal was being refurbished as part of the Canadian government’s effort to show the world that Canada was forward-thinking and cosmopolitan.
Lochhead is still alive and there are efforts to “save Gander airport,” in part because of the mural. Ironically, perhaps, the mural was painted with egg tempera (pigments mixed with egg yolk, applied to a dry wall), a particularly long-lasting method. We learn in The Night Stages, that Lochhead used approximately 5,000 eggs for the job.
The terminal opened in 1938 and before long was one of the busiest airports in the world. The new International Departure Lounge was the centrepiece of the striking new design and is considered “the single most important modernist room in Canada.” In addition to Lochhead’s mural, there are geometric terrazzo floors, and cutting-edge furniture by renowned Canadian and international designers like Robin Bush, Jacques Guillon, and Arne Jacobsen. But with planes now able to travel longer distances, air traffic has dropped from 1.5 million to 400,000 flights annually and the future of the terminal––and mural––are being debated.
A preserved postcard, offered as a souvenir in the 1950s, describes the meaning of the mural. It talks about man motivated to fly by observing birds and of the feelings that flight engenders. To be airborne is to enter paradise. But in The Night Stages, the mural takes on many more interesting connotations. In one story line, Lochhead’s own life, as Urquhart imagines it, is embedded in the images. His growing up and beginning to study art in Regina lead to opportunities in the U.S. Colourful characters, intrigue, and relationships make for good reading and, it seems, interesting images. He muses that only the figures of kids have opinions; they are wisdom without judgement. The book is rife with arrivals and departures, and those left behind. A trip to Italy exposes Lochhead to more painful arrivals and departures of his own and to more “waiting and hope,” a theme that runs through the whole book and comes back to Lochhead as he paints, ten years later, in a room that would house only those who wait.
Tam’s interpretation of the mural’s images mirror her own life, making the whole novel a possible interpretation of the mural. The comfortable-looking woman in one scene reminds her of her nan, the woman who took care of her as a child. Figures come in and out of focus as she stares at them, remembering some times more clearly than others. Some of the figures seem bewildered by their own lack of importance. Other figures come into view only with prolonged study: “it had been possible to ignore this small person because of the hugeness of the man laying claim to the space around him”–– a clear reference to Niall and his brother. As with the mural, each episode of the book “bleeds into its neighbour’s territory,” the writing fluid with no disparate parts. Premonitions, lead the reader forward in a book that is mostly about memory: Niall has a hard time talking about his brother, referring only to “the living apart and then a kind of betrayal” that we learn about in detail later.
The device of murals as allegories comes up in a number of places in The Night Stages. Famous ones such as the 14th century "Allegory of Good Government," and its companion, the "Allegory of Bad Government," both in Siena by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and those of the early Renaissance painter, “the master,” Piero della Francesca, form part of Lochhead’s training, while lesser ones give him life lessons, “teaching persistence, not parade.”
Urquhart is widely celebrated. I experienced the international reach of her fame while standing in front of the Lorenzetti murals in Siena. A local scholar observed me, and hearing my answer to her question about where I was from, told me, with glowing eyes, about Jane Urquhart and her special way of seeing.
The Night Stages, both a powerful expression of previous themes and a gripping fresh, new read, is likely to add to Urquhart's accolades.
Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.