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Sanctuary Line (2010)

by Jane Urquhart

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18814115,271 (3.61)37
"Set in the present day on a farm at the shores of Lake Erie, Jane Urquhart's stunning new novel weaves elements from the nineteenth-century past, in Ireland and Ontario, into a gradually unfolding contemporary story of events in the lives of the members of one family that come to alter their futures irrevocably. There are ancestral lighthouse-keepers, seasonal Mexican workers; the migratory patterns and survival techniques of the Monarch butterfly; the tragedy of a young woman's death during a tour of duty in Afghanistan; three very different but equally powerful love stories. Jane Urquhart brings to vivid life the things of the past that make us who we are, and reveals the sometimes difficult path to understanding and forgiveness."--pub. desc.… (more)
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This is the first time that a book by Jane Urquhart disappoints me. Sanctuary Line has all the elements that attracts me to Urquhart’s writing. The prose is meditative and poetic, the pace of the telling measured, the writing full of symbolism – butterflies, lighthouses, apple trees in bloom. But there is something about the structure of the narrative that felt gimmicky. We are told at the very beginning of a terrible event that transformed the lives of the people in this story. This event is then dangled at us, the readers, as a carrot on a stick. When it is finally revealed it is somewhat predictable, as terrible as it is. It could maybe had worked in a short story, but to structure the whole narrative of a book into the eventual revealing of this mysterious event, made the book tiresome. To add to the gimmicky feeling, is the revelation at the end to whom the narrator is speaking which felt contrived.

I am still glad I read, and I still look forward to read other books by Urquhart, whom I believe is one of the most accomplished contemporary Canadian writers. If my review seems harsh, maybe it is because I do hold Jane Urquhart very high in my list of favorite writers.

I should mention that I listened to it in audio and the narration felt wrong in my ears. The attempt to give a Canadian accent to the characters during dialogues made them all corny and cliched. And maybe I would had liked the book better if I had read it instead. ( )
  RosanaDR | Apr 15, 2021 |
Liz tells the story of her childhood as an adult. She looks back on happy times of the spent summers on her uncle's orchard. She shows relentlessly the family tragedies of her widely divergent family, which often originated in the childhood of the individual characters. But she also becomes aware of the loss of a Mexican friend.
The story is very subtle. I like Urquhart's writing style. ( )
  Ameise1 | Oct 22, 2016 |
Terrific book. Kind of a slow starter, but then I got used to her style, which is like that of an embroiderer, or maybe a maker of fine Irish lace. Because she builds her narrative slowly and patiently with intimate interrelated details that all make an exquisitely fine pattern by story's end.

This was the first Urquhart book I'd read, but I liked it enough that I may try another. The story of the extended Butler family, Irish emigrants three-four generations in, who settled on the northern shore of Lake Erie in southern Ontario, orchardists and farmers. Another branch of the Butlers 'bifurcated' to become lighthouse keepers, but by the time our protagonist, Liz Crane, is telling her story, her own generation of Butler cousins have spread far and wide in various professions, and the old family farm and orchard have been sold off or gone back to woods and fields.

A complex tale which contains multiple love stories, as well as deaths and betrayals, SANCTUARY LINE will, if you stick with it, steal your heart and bring you to tears. It is Liz's story of being an fatherless city girl who spends her summers and holidays at the family farm, where she experiences first love. It is her cousin Mandy's story - how she goes away to military school to become an officer in the Canadian Army, does a tour in Afghanistan, where she falls hopelessly in love, a love that can never work, unfortunately. And it is the story of Mandy's charismatic (and probably bipolar) father, Liz's uncle, and how he charms them all, but ultimately fails them. It is a tale too of generational struggles and family myths and characters - old stories of the "great-greats". And it takes too a jaundiced look at our current war in Afghanistan, noting at one point that "if you look at history, it could be said that one man's terrorist is often another man's freedom fighter." Considering the Soviet-Afghan war and now our own seemingly endless entanglement there, enough said.

But this is a story primarily about memory, which Liz, looking back on her life, sums up well by saying -

"I now believe that memory is rarely a friend to anyone. Always attended by transience and loss, often by anguish, the very notion that the elderly spend their days wrapped in the comfort of pleasant mental journeys into the past is simply absurd ..."

SANCTUARY LINE is a beautifully written book. Urquhart draws on so many literary influences here, with frequent references to many - Dickinson, Sandburg, Keats, Byron, R.L. Stevenson, Neruda, etc. She is obviously well-versed in all of these. In a tragic and anguished look back at the end of childhood, she makes good use of these lines from Stevenson' A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES -

"To house and garden, field and lawn,
The meadow gates we swang upon,
To pump and stable, tree and swing,
Goodbye, goodbye, to everything!"

I'll say it again. Urquhart is an artist and SANCTUARY LINE is a beautiful book. Very highly recommended.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
  TimBazzett | Jan 25, 2016 |
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 it. In 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. ( )
1 vote yourotherleft | Dec 14, 2013 |
Liz Crane has returned to her family’s farmhouse on the shore of Lake Erie, a once happy place where she spent many summers as a young girl. Now the house is empty, the farm falling into ruins and most of her family has moved on or passed away. Liz is now an entomologist studying the migratory habits of the Monarch butterfly; the old farm seems like a good place for her to do her research.

Before long Liz is haunted by nostalgic thoughts from the past. Triggering these thought were the recent death of Amanda, her cousin and constant playmate during those lakeside summers. The summer when Liz was sixteen, her uncle, Amanda’s father, left the farm one night never to be seen again. Eventually Liz reveals the mystery of his disappearance and the sorrow and pain surrounding it.

The story is told by Liz in a beautifully descriptive narrative, delicately peeling back the layers of her family history and their relationship with the land. Slow moving, richly detailed and with well-developed characters, the reader needs to have patience to appreciate this novel. The pace is leisurely and meandering.

This is a very literary, multi-layered novel, with symbolism throughout. The plot doesn’t come together until the last quarter of the book. There were a few times when I considered abandoning the book because, while I do enjoy literature, nothing was happening to move this story along. Yes, the pace of the novel was slow, but the ending was powerful, thought-provoking and one that will linger. The wait was worth it. ( )
1 vote UnderMyAppleTree | Oct 9, 2013 |
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Slowly and beautifully the land loomed out of the sea. The wind came again. It had veered from the northeast to the southeast. Finally, a new sound struck the ears of the men in the boat. It was the low thunder of the surf on the shore. "We'll never be able to make the lighthouse now," said the captian. "Swing her head a little more north, Billie," said he. -- The Open Boat by Stephen Crane
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"Set in the present day on a farm at the shores of Lake Erie, Jane Urquhart's stunning new novel weaves elements from the nineteenth-century past, in Ireland and Ontario, into a gradually unfolding contemporary story of events in the lives of the members of one family that come to alter their futures irrevocably. There are ancestral lighthouse-keepers, seasonal Mexican workers; the migratory patterns and survival techniques of the Monarch butterfly; the tragedy of a young woman's death during a tour of duty in Afghanistan; three very different but equally powerful love stories. Jane Urquhart brings to vivid life the things of the past that make us who we are, and reveals the sometimes difficult path to understanding and forgiveness."--pub. desc.

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