JANE URQUHART's Away is a complex layering of ideas about emotions and emotions about ideas. If that sounds too intellectual, Away is also one of those novels that moves in and takes over your life. Urquhart writes on a very large canvas, spanning more than a century and two continents. The book begins in pre-famine Northern Ireland, when beautiful young Mary pulls a drowning man from a sea awash with cabbages, silver teapots, and casks of whisky. The man dies in Mary's arms. Ever after he is regarded as Mary's demon lover and she is thought to be not of this world - "away."
The novel describes what happens to Mary and Brian, the sceptical, self-educated schoolteacher she marries, and to their children, Liam and Eileen. When the famine comes, the family is given passage to Canada by their twin Protestant landlords Osbert and Granville Sedgewick. The sincere and totally ineffectual efforts of these two characters to somehow connect with their Catholic tenants give the narrative a broad comic thread. But beneath the humour, Urquhart conveys the Sedgewicks' sense of loss because they can never feel at home in the country where they were born.
In Canada, the story focuses on Eileen. Mary abandons her family just after this child is born, and Eileen embodies the worst flaws of both parents: Mary's mystic attachment to things she cannot possess, and Brian's bitterness about the wrongs visited upon the Irish. It would be unfair to reveal the way in which these traits shape Eileen's life, but her story is compelling. At the periphery of Eileen's story, Urquhart places D'Arcy McGee, the only political figure to have been assassinated in Canada. Urquhart uses this assassination to explore what it meant to be Irish and Catholic in 19th-century Canada, the nature of nationalism, and the wisdom of nursing old political wounds in a new land. She makes some important points in the process, but her prose never degenerates into polemic.
Urquhart has a way of playing with romance and romanticism that, in her earlier novels, sometimes left the reader (at least this reader) uncertain of her intent. I found it difficult to know if Changing Heaven (1990) was a romance, or a novel that explored how the conventions of romance can distort women's lives. In Away, Urquhart does not reveal her ideas about Eileen's character, emotions, and politics until the final pages of the book, but when she does, her intent is clear and will take most readers by surprise.
Away is enjoyable not only for its complexity of ideas and subtle characterization, but also for the sheer power of Urquhart's writing. Magic realism is a driving force in this book, but it almost always connects seamlessly with reality. The only concept that seemed incredible to me was that of trying to express a political message by dancing. Everything else, from demon lover to talking crow, rang true. Away is simply a great novel.