Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart
Recently returned to Lake Erie to study the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly, entomologist Liz Crane moves into her family’s now-deserted farmhouse. Casting a shadow over her life is the recent death of her cousin, Amanda Butler, a gifted military strategist killed in Afghanistan, and the disappearance many years earlier of her irrepressible, charismatic uncle. Liz explores the many-layered history of the eccentric Butler family, ancestral lighthouse-keepers, agriculturalists and dreamers and re-evaluates the lives of the seasonal workers imported each summer from Mexico to harvest the fruit on the farm, with them Teo, a young boy alone in his apartness. Surrounded by memories, Liz herself is haunted by a deeply buried family secret, by four different, unexpected love affairs, and by the tragic events that ultimately altered all their futures.
Jane Urquhart may be the author of six novels, but for some sad reason my book radar has completely missed her, until now. I had no idea what to expect from Sanctuary Line. I knew the premise of the novel intrigued me, but I wasn’t prepared at all for the astoundingly beautiful writing that held me captive for two whole days whilst reading it, and many days long after.
Sanctuary Line follows the story of Liz Crane as she moves into the now-deserted farmhouse that once belonged to her uncle. Living there alone, watching the land around her deteriorate day by day, she reflects on the lives of her family and their ancestors. The novel has a strong underline of unwavering sadness throughout, as Liz remembers her cousin, recently killed in Afghanistan, and her Uncle who she loved so dearly until the day he left and never came back. Liz has fond memories of spending many a summer on her uncle’s farm, playing in the river with her cousins, or taking driving lessons with the Mexican farmhand, Teo. Liz’s uncle is a complicated character, one with many faces. He is at times heart-warming and endearing, playing with the children to his heart’s content, obviously feeling much as much joy as them in these times. The children look up to him and want to be around him as much as possible. But then, he has a troubled side. A rash, impetuous and angry side that shows its ugly face, often in reaction, or to provoke a reaction from his wife, who he clearly shares a somewhat strained relationship with. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that he was a man living the kind of life he didn’t really want. He wanted more, but his marriage held him back from the things he truly wanted. Despite his flaws and outbursts, he became one of my favourite characters, and Liz’s memories of him became my favourite of all.
“My uncle stood out on the lawn for what seemed to me to be a very long time, tilting the record my aunt had scratched back and forth in the light to see how much it was damaged. I watched him through the window while I was putting knives and forks on the table. Something about the way his head was lowered as he examined the disc made it possible for me to see that during his most recent trip to the barber the back of his neck had been shaved. The thought of him sitting in the chair with his chin resting on his chest, utterly submissive and covered like a child in a large white bib, coupled with the way he carefully slid that vinyl record back into its sleeve and slowly closed the lid of the record player, made me heartsick, thought I couldn’t have explained, at the time, why I might feel that way.”
My other favourite character has to be, without a doubt, Teo, the young Mexican boy who lives on the farm during the summers with his mother, to work on the farm. He is a quiet, polite young man, who knows little English, but Liz’s Uncle encourages the other children to treat him as one of the family, to play with him and be kind. However, Liz’s Uncle felt a kind compassion towards Teo, that the other children couldn’t understand. Teo was a Mexican, an outsider, and that’s all he would ever be. But Liz saw beyond that and came to love the boy in a way that eludes her, even years later.
What really makes this novel the beautiful piece of art that it is, is not only Urquhart’s incredibly sparse, simple yet powerful writing style, but the sense of place. The Canadian farm-setting really comes to life and you can tell that Urquhart has either experienced this life for herself, or has spent a lot of effort doing meticulous research. The wonderful history of the farm and the orchards and of Lake Erie itself has been captured so well that it will make you feel as though you’ve known the place your whole life too. As the family stories go back over four generations, you can tell that this is a family that takes a lot of pride in its history and that their ancestors play a huge part in their lives today. Liz’s uncle tells her stories of how in the 19th century, their ancestors emigrated from Ireland, settled on both the American and Canadian sides of the lake, and one half of the family became lighthouse keepers, and the other half farmers. It’s interesting to see how one person’s decision can impact the fate of several generations in the family. Liz’s story recalls four love affairs, and one deeply buried family secret, and it’s intriguing to watch them all evolve.
Of course the other thread of this intricately woven story is Liz’s virtually life-long study of butterfly migration. It is obvious that theme of migration plays a big part in Sanctuary Line, but the way Urquhart uses simple metaphors of butterfly migration to depict a certain feeling Liz feels towards her life, is breath-taking. Urquhart is absolutely effortless in her writing, her spare style never feels over-loaded with adjectives, but words that have been carefully chosen.
“It occurs to me now that monarchs show every appearance of being cheerful creatures. Their beauty, the fact that they dance across our summer gaze, stunningly adorned and always in the vicinity of brilliantly coloured flowers, their poise, and the apparent effortlessness of their movements give us every reason to believe they are in a state of grace. But, in fact, few insects have such a fraught existence.”
These passages reminded me somewhat of Poppy Adams’ The Behaviour of Moths, a book I didn’t enjoy and often found overloaded with moth facts and long, wordy descriptions that I never understood, or cared for. Jane Urquhart manages the complete opposite with her wonderful, fluid prose. I never once found the little insights into the lives of butterflies, dull or factual. They read beautifully, and I felt fascinated by each and every one of them, almost as if their behaviour really could give us an insight into our own.
One of my colleagues who read this before me, said she found Sanctuary Line to be beautifully written, but thought not much really ever happened in the story. I couldn’t have disagreed more. This novel may be one character’s introspective look on her life, but all the wonderful little stories are fascinating studies of human behaviour and I challenge anyone not to relate to at least one of them. There is so much in this novel it’s hard to include everything in this review; love, death, lies, secrets, family, racism, migration, and war. This isn’t a plot-driven thriller, but a reflective account of a farm and its inhabitants, and it’s certainly not without its twists. There are some huge secrets exposed that I never saw coming, and was left sitting open-mouthed.
I have truly been left in awe of Jane Urquhart and her incredible talent as a writer. I have already added more of her novels to my wish list, and really cannot wait to explore more. Sanctuary Line may not be the bestseller of the year, or the most popular novel, in fact, you may not have heard of it yet. But trust me when I say, this is better than most bestseller’s I’ve read in the last year! If you appreciate great writing and are looking for a story that will stay with you forever, then go and buy Sanctuary Line. I’m already looking forward to reading it again.
Sanctuary Line is out now, published by MacLehose Press, an imprint of Quercus. Thanks goes to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review. I must also give another big thank you to MacLehose Press for providing me with these short clips taken from an interview with Jane Urquhart discussing the novel which you can find below.