Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

Liz is an entomologist studying monarch butterflies on the shores of Lake Erie in southern Ontario. She lives in a fieldstone farmhouse that has been in her family for generations, although most of the farmland has been sold over the years. Every summer while Liz was growing up, she and her mother used to travel from their home in Toronto to spend two months at the farm. The place was like her second home and Liz's cousin Mandie, two years younger, was her best friend.

The story opens with Mandie's funeral; she died in Afghanistan during a tour of military duty. Grief over the loss of her cousin opens old wounds for Liz. She addresses her narrative of memories to a particular person, identified only as "you" until the denouement. Liz's story of her extended family centers around Mandie's charismatic and mentally unstable father and the event that caused him to abandon his family when the girls were in their mid-teens. Teo, a child of one of the Mexican fieldworkers who came to the farm every year, is also part of the story. He and Liz were the same age and they both felt somewhat apart from the other kids.

It is this quality of aloofness or reservedness that is a distinguishing mark in Jane Urquart's fiction. Another reader told me she found Urquart cold, but I am fascinated by characters like Liz who protects her heart so fiercely.

Sanctuary Line is a quiet story with vivid characters and an excellent evocation of time and place. It is on the long list for the Giller Prize. Readalikes: The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys and Crow Lake by Mary Lawson.

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