The Hands of Chance and Change
by Cynthia Sugars
In Jane Urquhart's latest novel, A Map of Glass, there is a hotel which, over the course of a few decades, gradually becomes subsumed beneath layers of sand. The inhabitants see it happening but are at a loss to stop it. Like Yeats's rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem, the quicksands of time subject everything to their will, whatever one may do to fend them off. Such is the slow inexorability of destiny. Sweeping the sandpiles from the window ledges is futile; they accumulate everywhere. This episode is emblematic of the larger concerns of this novel: the inevitability of change, the fitfulness of destiny, and the erosion of historical memory.
Readers who have been awaiting Urquhart's latest book after the immense success of her three previous award-winning novels-The Stone Carvers, The Underpainter, and Away-will recognize the hallmarks of her work: dreamy but inspired women; heavily symbolic layering; a fascination with the 19th century; philosophical profundities about loss and longing; characters obsessed with geography; and a desire to conjure the past, even as that past eludes one's grasp. All of these elements are here. Yet there is something in the overall effort that doesn't quite come off.
The novel, divided into three sections, is framed by the character of Sylvia, who is mourning the death of her lover, Andrew Woodman, a historical geographer whose obsession with retrieving the past is set in ironic counterpoint to the gradual loss of his memory from Alzheimer's as the novel proceeds. Sylvia, who suffers from an unnamed psychic ailment (presumably a mild form of autism), reads about Andrew's death in the newspaper and sets out to speak with the man who discovered his corpse frozen in the ice off Timber Island. Andrew, it turns out, had been seeking a return to the past by journeying to the haunts of his timber-baron ancestors. This is where the plot takes an improbable turn. We are to believe that Sylvia, who has never left her house on her own, whose every action must be monitored by her overly solicitous doctor-husband, and who is inept at the most basic forms of social interaction, travels on her own to Toronto to meet with the equally distracted artist, Jerome, who found Andrew's body while taking photographs for his latest art installation. The fact that Jerome never knew Andrew and can tell Sylvia nothing doesn't stop her from planting herself on his doorstep and chatting about her obsessions. Jerome, who seems as uptight as she is, begins to welcome these intrusions, though why he endures them isn't clear. There are vague references to Jerome's troubled relationship with his father, but this is never developed enough for us to really care. Instead, we are to think there is some kind of mystical destiny at work, that Sylvia and Jerome were meant to meet so that . . . what? So that Jerome can be Sylvia's confessor while he himself benefits from the older woman's obscure form of savantism? The whole thing is unconvincing, and doesn't make for very compelling reading.
Urquhart's work slips a notch when she is writing about the present. Her female characters, when transposed to the present, come across as overly romanticized and slightly prim. Her men are chronically aloof: distant, taciturn, and suffering some inner torment. This is all requisite fare in Urquhart's earlier works, particularly in her first three historical novels-The Whirlpool, Away, and Changing Heaven. However, without the shrouding effect of the distant past, it all seems a bit forced. Perhaps it is the character of Sylvia that is the weak link here. Sylvia's "autism" functions as a convenient symbol for existence without history, for being caught in a perpetual present. As she tells her husband, "I never know . . . where we have been, where we are now." She figures herself as a "missing person", which clearly echoes the female characters in Urquhart's 1993 bestseller Away. Nevertheless, her observations come across as neurotic rather than profound. Because of her disability, she has a heightened awareness of change. One might say the same of the deceased Andrew, though his was a heightened awareness of the past, which included a sense of obligation towards it. On the one hand, Andrew was plagued by what he termed an "inherited memory of destruction" since his ancestors participated in the destruction of the Ontario wilderness. On the other, he felt guilty because so many of these settler ancestors had been forgotten. Their legacy, as he put it, is a "biography of stones". In a sense, Sylvia and Andrew switch places: he becomes locked in a present that allows no sense of sequence; she becomes obsessed with "sequentiality", how the past affects the present. "Perhaps," she tells Jerome, "all of life is an exercise in forgetting."
The book aims to explore the interconnections between past and present, and so its form is important to its theme. One problem is that the historical section of the novel is far more compelling than the ponderous exchanges between Sylvia and Jerome in his pseudo-bohemian Toronto studio. The novel finally comes alive a third of the way through when we read the history of Andrew's ancestors as they have been recorded in Andrew's voluminous notebooks, which Sylvia gives Jerome to read. In effect, we are allowed to eavesdrop on the ghosts of Canada's settler past, watching them stalk the landscape and lay their claim to it. The history of Timber Island, based on the real-life Garden Island in Kingston Harbour, tells of the competing lumber barons and the men who worked on the immense rafts that were transported downriver to Quebec City. Here we learn the tale of Branwell Woodman, Andrew's great-grandfather, whose affair with the vivacious servant girl from Orphan Island, Marie, set in action a chain of events that was to shape the family's destiny. Whether predestined or not is a question left to the reader to ponder, but a series of circumstances contribute to the family's loss of fortune. In effect, this was inevitable since the golden age of lumbering had to come to an end with the advent of steamships and railway lines. Such is the whimsy, as Charles G.D. Roberts put it, of "the hands of chance and change."
Branwell Woodman, like his 19th-century namesake Branwell Brontd, is a mediocre painter whose education takes precedence over that of his more talented sister, Annabelle. He travels to Europe only to return home a disappointment to the family patriarch, until Annabelle takes Branwell's fate in hand and not only reunites him with Marie but also sets in motion his artistic career as a muralist. Marie, in turn, enters the family as a kind of Heathcliff, whose origins are uncertain (albeit French Canadian), and who has an edge of ferocity that draws Branwell into her bed. The father's antipathy to everything Irish and Catholic is mitigated by his love for his grandson, the "Badger", who eventually undermines his grandfather's legacy by marrying the daughter of Woodman Senior's arch-rival. All of this makes for compelling reading, and I have to admit that I happily forgot Jerome's and Sylvia's private angsts. It is true that we are supposed to be reading Andrew Woodman's notebooks in these sections, which is somewhat problematic as there are certain elements here that a later descendant would not be privy to, such as the thoughts and feelings of Annabelle as she puts together her "Splinter Book" of memorabilia, or Annabelle and Maria's whispered itemisations of Branwell's faults. Nevertheless, these stylistic lapses might be explained by the revelation in the novel's final framing chapters, which raises a question about the nature of the notebooks. I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that the novel concludes in a Life of Pi manner, in which everything we have been led to believe respecting the events we have been reading about (and not only in the notebook sections) is called into question.
Toward the end of the novel, it is revealed that Andrew suffered from Alzheimer's and gradually stopped recognizing Sylvia. This turned her into a kind of ghost. Alzheimer's becomes a symbol for the intergenerational forgetting of the past, the inevitability of historical amnesia. While Urquhart seeks to waylay the effects of such forgetting in her novels, or at least to meditate on the psychic trauma that the futility of the endeavour brings about, the real challenge is the Pascalian leap of faith required to honour one's ancestors in the full recognition that "the dead don't answer when we call them." Urquhart's works bespeak a longing for teleology, a desire to find meaning in the happenstance of destiny. I admire her commitment to this poeticising of Ontario's settler history and the conjuring act it entails. I would ask, however, for fewer ethereal maidens along the way.