by Sherie Posesorki
The person and poetics of Robert Browning cast a giant shadow over Jane Urquhart's ambitious first novel The Whirlpool. In her prologue Urquhart presents the elderly Browning in Venice, overwhelmed by his recollections of the poet Shelley and by portents of his death. This romantically morbid vignette introduces the major leitmotivs of her novel: dreams, obsessions, death, and their relationship to the production of art.
Browning wrote, "Throughout life, 'tis death makes life live. Gives it whatever the significance." That is the premise Urquhart dramatizes through the lives of her characters, who all are cocooned in the mourning of their death-related obsessions and livelihoods. Maud Grady, the undertaker's widow, spends her days tenderly tending the dead, and her nights dreaming of her late husband. She mores her autistic son in favour of her "dolls" - dead young girls that she prepares for embalming. Military historian David McDougall marries a woman who resembles the spectre who haunts his dreams - Laura Second -.and neglects her in his pursuit of his studies. His wife Fleda, preoccupies herself with compulsive rereadings of Browning by the edge of a whirlpool, where Patrick, a poet, spies on her, then takes her as his muse.
Urquhart's pie is clear and vivid, and her characters' obsessions have a brooding power. Nonetheless, the pulleys of her ideas have more force and drama than the lives of her characters. They don't embody and enact her concepts: rather, they ride them, like children on a carousel. What is missing from The Whirlpool is the fictional alchemy that transforms the dead matter of fiction into the warm flesh of life.