Monday, December 9, 2013

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

Liz Crane grew up departing the city for idyllic summers at her Uncle Stanley's orchard on the Canadian shores of Lake Erie.  Summers for Liz are times for endless games with her cousins, young love, and worshiping at the feet of the charismatic Stanley Butler.  Uncle Stanley was a forward-looking farmer, the first to try a new crop or a new method of growing, and most definitely the first to "import" workers from Mexico to help with the summer fruit harvest.  However, his deep connection to the past meant that Liz and her family's summers were littered with the re-telling of the stories of the "old Great-Great's" of the Butler family who tended lighthouses in Ireland or split from the rest to farm on either the Canadian side or American side of the Great Lakes or even made a dangerously unflattering, if mostly anonymous, appearance in a Stephen Crane short story.  As Liz, from a distance of years, reflects on her uncle's fate, her young love for the son of one of the migrant workers, and her family mythology, it soon becomes all-too-apparent that painful secrets ran deep beneath the summers of her youth, secrets with the power to tear a family apart.

While I greatly anticipated reading Sanctuary Line, I'm afraid I didn't love itIn fact, I almost gave up on it shortly past the fifty page mark.  Liz's narration, while rife with beautiful prose, seemed to be so wooden and lacking in emotion that I had trouble engaging with it.  When an author chooses to use a first-person voice for their narration, readers might be inclined to expect a deeper understanding of and stronger emotional connection with the narrator, but Urquhart's densely poetic prose did more to interfere with that connection than it did to promote it.  

Despite my issues with the narration, Urquhart's prose is undeniably evocative.  In her hands, the Butler farm comes to life, full of warm evenings filled with dancing, games and storytelling, as does the windy peak of an Irish lighthouse where tragedy waits to strike, and the early days of the farm that would one day belong to Uncle Stanley.  Even the house where Liz rattles around recalling the distant past is imbued with a haunting melancholy that contrasts sharply with the vitality it held during her childhood.

The high point of Sanctuary Line would have to be the stories of Liz's Great-Greats which are woven easily into her nostalgia.  Indeed, one of my favorite things about much of Canadian fiction that I've read is the deeply felt connection to distant family members, and how their enduring mythology permeates the present as it does in Sanctuary Line.  The stories of the farming Butlers who divided from their brethren, the lighthouse-keeping Butlers are compelling, maybe in part because they offer a brief escape from the heavy-laden first person narration, but mostly because they have that air of stories passed down verbally through a family's history until they became legends of a sort.

All told, Sanctuary Line is a beautifully written book, and one with many good points but one which I found ultimately disappointing.    Sanctuary Line's good points never lined up to create a cohesive whole, and the result is a book that had the potential to be heartfelt, but lacked in its ability to emotionally engage its readers.

(This book was provided to me by the publicist in exchange for my honest review.)


  1. While I appreciate beautiful writing I generally don't love it when it supersedes plot.

  2. I think I would have some of the same problems that you did. Thanks for bringing attention to a book and writer I hadn't heard of before!

    1. Sure thing! If you want to check out some more of Urquhart's work, I'd highly recommend Away. I read it before I started blogging and really liked it a lot!