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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Happy birthday, Jane Urquhart! (Review of THE NIGHT STAGES)

Today, June 21, is the 67th birthday of one of my favourite Canadian authors:  Jane Urquhart.   A new book of hers will be released on October 11:  A Number of Things: Stories About Canada Told Through 50 Objects.

“From one of our nation’s most beloved and iconic authors comes a lyrical 150th birthday gift to Canada. Jane Urquhart chooses 50 Canadian objects and weaves a rich and surprising narrative that speaks to our collective experience as a nation.  Each object is beautifully illustrated by the noted artist Scott McKowen, with Jane Urquhart conjuring and distilling meaning and magic from these unexpected facets of our history.  The fifty artifacts range from a Nobel Peace Prize medal, a literary cherry tree, a royal cowcatcher, a Beothuk legging, a famous skull and an iconic artist’s shoe, as well as an Innu tea doll, a Sikh RCMP turban, a Cree basket, a Massey-Harris tractor and a hanging rope, among an array of unexpected and intriguing objects.  Bringing the curiosity of the novelist and the eloquence of the poet to her task, Jane Urquhart composes a symphonic memory bank with objects that resonate with symbolic significance. In this compelling portrait of a completely original country called Canada, a master novelist has given all of us a national birthday bouquet like no other” (

I’ve already featured my review of one of her books, Sanctuary Line

In honour of the author's birthday, here’s my review of her latest novel which was released last year, The Night Stages:
3 Stars
On a flight from Ireland to New York, Tam is stranded for three days at the Gander Airport because of fog, “’fog that blinds and deafens and causes that stillness . . . followed by the kind of clarity that causes you to wince’” (229). The fog grounds her, but it is a mural in the terminal which inspires her to reflect – on her past life as an auxiliary pilot in WWII; her relationship with Niall, an emotionally remote meteorologist whom she has just left; and Niall’s search for Kieran, his missing brother. Interspersed with her reflections are vignettes of the life of Kenneth Lochhead, the artist who painted the mural, and that of Kieran after he left home.

The mural is entitled Flight and Its Allegories and a major theme in the book is that of flight: Tam’s “ridiculous joy” (118) when flying a plane and her fleeing from Niall; Kieran’s flight from his family home after a tragedy and his happiness when exploring on his bicycle, “always happiest on higher ground” so he is described as a climber “’Always heading for the sky’” (156); Niall’s withdrawals from Tam, retreats so frequent that they form a “familiar pattern” (197).

It is flight that becomes the sustaining metaphor throughout. When her job as an auxiliary pilot comes to an end after the war, Tam talks of having “lost her compass” (130) and finding herself “so essentially adrift” (254). In her relationship with Niall she realizes she has become “in every possible way, a passenger” (10) and feels she has “lost her bearings. Her instruments were lying to her. She would not be able to make her way, even with familiar territory under her, toward any kind of landing strip” (331).

The characterization of Tam is unsatisfactory. In her youth she was adventurous as evidenced by her transporting planes throughout the war. When Niall entered her life, she exchanged her “then-vivid life” for one that is “very likely uninteresting”: “The young pilot she had been then, the young woman behind the controls, would have been disdainful of what she has become: a sombre person” (10). In her thirties she acquiesces to a life with a “Lack of certainty, ambivalence, impossibility, and no hope whatsoever of resolution” (385)? Why? The mural with its exploration of “speed and stasis” (221) is perhaps a symbol of Tam’s life but, unfortunately, she also seems as flat and inert and unknowable as the figures on the mural.

I am unclear as to why Kenneth Lochhead is included as a major character. The flashbacks into his life before his painting of the mural suggest how his experiences affected his rendering, but he has no connection to Tam, Niall or Kieran. (I almost felt Lochhead was inserted because he was a friend of Urquhart’s husband.) For this reason, I take exception to Claire Messud’s assertion that Urquhart has a gift “for the melding of ideas, events and individuals into a significant whole.” I was not left with a sense of a whole.

The book, until the An Post Rás, is very slow-paced. The first 350 pages have the reader feeling as if he/she is in the night stage of the bicycle race but there is no drinking nor does it serve as “an antidote of sorts to the day’s suffering” (355). I guess Tam’s interrupted journey in Gander is a night stage of sorts with the race resuming once she makes her decision about where she will continue from Gander. Unfortunately, if the night stage is too prolonged, interest is lost in the rest of the race though, indeed, “’It’s not finished yet’” (389).

Though I have read and enjoyed most of Urquhart’s other novels, I was not as enamoured with this one. Though the language is lyrical, the novel does not feel like a cohesive unit, and parts are tedious like a long delay in a journey. I do, however, want to go and see Lochhead’s mural!