A few days ago I quoted a passage from Jane Urquhart's novel Sanctuary Line. I chose it for its imagery, but also because I suspected (I had read no further at that point) that it would somehow be emblematic of the whole book, and having finished it now I think that is so. That picture of reflections, refraction, views mirrored in other views, and so on, is much like the story itself, or rather the way in which it is told.
Liz Crane is an entomologist who is researching the migration of monarch butterflies and has come back to live at her family's farm on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. The farm was founded generations earlier, and the family's history has echoed down the years, myth and memory, anecdote and cautionary tale, told and retold. Most recently, the farm was home to Liz's uncle, aunt and cousin Amanda, and Liz and her mother spent every summer there, but the events of one hot night changed everything for those present, and now it is that more recent past that has left its impression on the old house and the long-neglected land.
The family, once large, thriving and forward-looking, is now depleted. Liz's cousin Amanda, to whom she was very close, was a brilliant military strategist who has been killed in Afghanistan; her uncle, a man who had to "own the lion's share of experience", disappeared and has never been seen again, even at his daughter's repatriation ceremony and funeral. Liz's aunt is dead, her mother in a retirement home, so it is Liz alone who lives with memories and tries to make sense of the past - to make the pieces fit. "Absence confronts me daily, but my uncle's disappearance - his departure to nowhere - was the most dramatic, and the most deliberate, the most final abdication of them all." The narrative advances towards that fatal night and then retreats, alludes to the events and their consequences, seeks to find cause and measure effect - and all the while multiple histories are being plied together to make a single strand.
This is a very even, measured book, introspective in nature - although it becomes clear Liz is telling her story to someone other than the reader - sensitive, beautifully crafted and rich in its simple economy. The theme of migration which connects the butterflies, the ancestors who came from Ireland to settle by the Lake, the Mexican farm workers flown in for seasonal work, even Liz and her mother and their summer visits to the farm, is woven through past and present day, and with it ideas of belonging or fitting in, acting according to type and heritage, conforming or not. I had not read Jane Urquhart before, but on the strength of this book I'm looking forward to discovering more of her work (Linda, in her comment here, recommends The Stone Carvers very highly).