Many Canadian novelists and poets (Jane Urquhart is both) have some deep connection to the visual arts as well—as minor practitioners, say, or as critics. But Urquhart’s new novel The Night Stages reminds us, as though we needed reminding, that her own relationship to art is a rich and especially meaningful one.
The main plot device in this compelling and intricate novel comes when Tam, an Englishwoman who served as an auxiliary pilot during World War II, is terminating a love affair by leaving her home in Ireland and flying across the Atlantic. The journey is interrupted when she gets fogged in at Gander in Newfoundland. She uses her three days and nights there to contemplate the breakup, the disappearance of her ex’s brother—and the gigantic mural that takes up one entire wall of the terminal.
Many elderly Canadians can recall when international travel often required a layover at Gander. The 9/11 attack on New York, when an enormous number of U.S. passengers were given shelter there after all commercial traffic was suspended, was a reminder of those days.
But since 1959 the most memorable part of the Gander International Airport experience has been the monumental mural depicting the history of flight. It is the work of the important Canadian painter and teacher Kenneth Lochhead (1926–2006), with whom Urquhart, as it happened, was acquainted (“l didn’t really know him, but we had social time”). What’s more, she was writer in residence at Memorial University in Newfoundland in 1992. “Aha,” you might say. “It all fits.” But there are many wires in this connection.
Because her father was a prospector and mining engineer, Jane Carter, as she then was, got herself born in Little Longlac, Ontario, a place every bit as cosmopolitan as it sounds. But she was educated in Toronto (where Margot Kidder was one of her classmates at an exclusive private girls’ school).
While in university she married an art student. After his death in a car accident in 1973, she decided to return to school and study art history. “I was 24, and it taught me how to look,” she tells the Straight by phone from her home in Ontario. “I was trying to understand one of the great mysteries: how art does what it does. I’ve always been fascinated by that, though I never wanted to become an artist myself. But I do enjoy doing watercolours—because I don’t have to draw!”
In 1976 she married the artist Tony Urquhart, one of Lochhead’s famous contemporaries, who is 15 years her senior. The couple live in Colborne, Ontario, about 140 kilometres east of Toronto.
Not many other Canadian authors of her generation have had the sort of ever-upward career path that Urquhart has enjoyed. Her first novel, The Whirlpool (1986), started out as a book-length poem before turning into fiction. The first review it received began with the phrase “dripping in grim Canadian thinking…”. Then everything brightened. In its Paris edition, it won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger as best foreign book of the year. She has lived in France at various times (in Ireland as well), and the French remain ardent about her fiction. She is a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
Significantly, two of her most widely known novels, The Underpainter and The Stone Carvers, published back to back in 1997 and 2001, also deal with artists and the art world, but she seems slightly startled to be asked if they are related to The Night Stages in some way. “It never occurred to me that anyone would take them [to be] a trilogy,” she says. In any case, this is her ninth work of fiction, despite what she considers (but no one else would) a sluggish creative metabolism. “I’m almost incapable of writing anything fast,” she says. “Usually, it takes me three years to write a book. This one took me five. It didn’t want to come out of the womb.”
Somehow she also manages to publish poetry collections and short stories and to undertake high-grade editorial, critical, and biographical projects.
In writing about such an individual there’s an almost unavoidable urge to take on the tone of a CV. Urquhart has twice been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for fiction, and has won it once. She has been a finalist for the Giller Prize (twice), the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. The list is incomplete. She is one of the stately personages in the often somewhat rabbly world of Canadian writing. Like, say, George Elliott Clarke, she has the highest rank in the Order of Canada and at last count was tied with him for the number of honorary degrees received so far (nine).
They’re two such nice people that no one could be jealous of them.
Jane Urquhart will read from The Night Stages at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch on Wednesday (April 22), as part of the Vancouver Writers Fest’s Incite series.