A Map of Glass, by Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart is one of my favorite authors, as you can probably tell by how many of her books I’ve reviewed here. I first heard of her some years ago at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. She was introduced by Timothy Findley, another of my favorite authors and one who is sorely missed. She in turn acknowledged him as one of her mentors. Before you say, oh those Canadians are so polite, let me just add that I have found this great generosity in every writing community into which I’ve stuck a toe.

Appropriately enough for this season of extraordinary cold and snowfall, this novel starts with an older man stumbling through the snow, a man whom we quickly understand seems to be suffering from a form of dementia. However, he is driven to find a place, an island, and has a map of shoreline in his mind even when the words to describe it have been lost.

The man is Andrew Woodman. His frozen body is found on the island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River by Jerome McNaughton, an artist who has come at the tail end of winter to find inspiration in the grim landscape. While not sure of what he is after, Jerome is drawn to decay and change, winter ice breaking up, branches hanging on still to last season’s twigs and seed pods. “But it was not the quickening of nature that intrigued him, rather the idea of nature’s memory and the way this unstable broken river had build itself briefly into another shape, another form, before collapsing back into what was expected of it.”

When he returns to Toronto, Jerome is sought out by Sylvia Bradley, a housewife living 30 miles from the island, a woman who has been severely sheltered. Seeing the world through her eyes, we understand why her parents and then husband keep her so enclosed: as a child she was so overwhelmed by the world that she made it go away most of the time. She fixated on rituals and the small things of her enclosed world.

Sylvia has developed a friendship with Julia, a blind woman for whom she makes tactile maps of places out of fabric and other materials. However, the great change in Sylvia’s life came when she met Andrew, a casual encounter on a street in town, and through him learned about love and the joy and pain and attention that comes with it.

When I was a child, I believed in places rather than people. Trees and shorelines and paths through the woods seemed more reliable to me, more constant. I was shattered to learn that this was not true, that trees may be cut down, shorelines eroded, and beloved places sold out from under you to be transformed beyond recognition.

This is a book about a place, seen through the lens of people who lived there. It’s about what we can learn of people through their places. Through Andrew’s journals we learn more about the island and the peninsula by it where Sylvia and Andrew’s ancestors live. We learn how these people are changed by this place and the place changed by them. Jerome says, “‘. . . after reading Andrew’s journals, I think maybe landscape—place—makes people more knowable. Or it did in the past. It seems there’s not much of that left now. Everyone’s moving, and the landscape, well, the landscape is disappearing.'”

Within this absorbing story of Sylvia and Jerome and Andrew lies a profound meditation on love and memory and geography and change. I was deeply moved by this story and came to a new understanding and acceptance of losses that still haunt my dreams.

What places hold great significance for you?

The Spare Room, Helen Garner

This novel is a small masterpiece. It opens with Helen preparing her spare room for an expected visitor, her friend Nicola who is coming to Melbourne for a three-week course of treatment for her cancer. Sounds grim, but there are humorous notes even on the first page as we learn that Nicola will care about the feng shui aspects of the room. In fact, Nicola doesn't believe in traditional medicine but instead puts her faith in Chinese herbs and magnetism and just about any other alternative treatment she can find. She gaily assures Helen that her cancer will be completely cured by the end of the three weeks.

The more rational Helen tries to go along with her friend's whims, but is shocked by how debilitated Nicola is, how much worse her condition is than described. Much of the push-pull of the story involves Helen fluctuating between respecting her friend's independence and wanting to knock some sense into her.

In addition to Nicola's life, Helen's own sense of herself is at stake. She thinks of herself as a good friend, as someone who is good in an emergency—qualities that are put to the test by Nicola's worsening condition. I think of myself as a good friend to have but can't imagine there are many people I'd be willing to care for as Helen does: up most of the night repeatedly changing the sheets and Nicola's nightgown, biting her tongue as Nicola swears that the pain is just the toxins working their way out. In the meantime, Helen has set her own life aside, including her writing and her relationship with her grandchildren who live next door.

How much do we owe each other? What of ourselves should we give up for others? I have always been clear that, for me at least, there is no limit to what I would give up for my children. There was a limit, however, to what I was willing to give up for my elderly parents, to what I was willing to do for them. Mind you, it was pretty far out there: the boundary was that I would not quit my job and move in with them to be a full-time caregiver and companion. However, if their circumstances had been different, if they hadn't been well able to afford the alternatives which were in fact much more effective for their situations, I might have decided differently. I see many of my friends struggling to define these boundaries now.

And that's family. What about friends? I was comforted and delighted when a community came together to help a friend with early-onset Alzheimer's who had no family besides a distant sister.

There is little rumination in this book; events move too fast for that. Scene follows scene, laughter mixed with fear, annoyance mixed with affection. It's a remarkable story that will make you think about your own place in the world and your own loved ones.

How much of your life would you give up to help a friend?

Pascali’s Island, by Barry Unsworth

In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, Basil Pascali has drawn a small salary from the Sultan for the last 20 years in return for sending reports of suspicious activities on the island where he lives. Nisi is a fictional Greek island occupied by the Turks. However, the Sultan's machinery of empire has grown so complex—byzantine, indeed—and his network of informers so vast, that Pascali's efforts go unacknowledged, perhaps even unread.

Except by us. The book is a series of reports to the Sultan in Pascali's inimitable voice. However formally he starts out, he quickly moves into an informal, gossipy tone, sharing details of his meals and fantasies. He even reveals that he has sometimes made up suspicious items to juice up his reports.

No need to do that now. A mysterious Englishman, Anthony Bowles, shows up wanting to do archeological research on the island and employing Pascali as a translator for his dealings with the local Pasha. Pascali also introduces Bowles to his friend Lydia, a bohemian artist who lives on the island, and the two quickly become close. Pascali tries to discover what Bowles is actually up to on the island, almost certainly something nefarious. At the same time, he must tread carefully so as not to offend the Pasha.

For me, this book was the rare instance of seeing a movie first, the 1988 film starring Ben Kingsley, Charles Dance, and Helen Mirren. I loved the film. How could I not with three of my favorite stars? I was fascinated by the decaying empire that had become too large and complex to survive. But the two things I loved most about the film were the depiction of Lydia's lifestyle and Pascali's loquacious but futile missives to the Sultan.

Unfortunately, Lydia's role in the book is much more circumscribed. However, Pascali's narration is given the limelight. The Sultan is so remote and so far above him, yet over 20 years of report-writing become so familiar, that Pascali alternates between prostrating himself to the Sultan and chatting with him. It's as though he's writing to god. In fact, he reminded me of a character in one of Jane Langton's books who writes letters to god and then balls up the paper and throws it up into the air. I think all writers must feel that way sometimes, that we are throwing our words out into the void, never knowing if anyone is paying attention.

I highly recommend both the book and the film. The book is a fantastic example of the use of voice—Pascali's voice alone could carry the book even without all the mysterious happenings and hidden agendas. With them, we have an exciting and thought-provoking read, one that makes me wonder once again how much we can know about the people around us, even those close to us.

What book have you read where the narrator's voice was irresistable?

Dark Southern Sun, by Shaun J. McLaughlin

This historical novel begins with two children coming upon the body of a man who has washed up on the beach. We're in Australia in 1845. The children debate whether the man is alive, the girl certain he is, the boy doubtful. A gull swoops and, deciding he is carrion, nips his hand. The hand twitches, settling the question.

It is Ryan, whom we first encountered in Cross Currents, which followed Ryan’s adventures in the Patriot War.

The children bring him water and fetch adults to help him. Gradually he heals and begins to learn the language of the Wathaurung, an indigenous people. The boy, Weeyn, is able to help, having learned some English. The people name Ryan Warrain, which means Belongs to the Sea.

So begins Ryan's adventures in Australia. He has escaped from the penal colony on Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania and now part of Australia) and is eager to use his strength and his skills to carve out a life for himself. He tangles first with Walter Fraser, a white man who started the school where Weeyn learned English but who has a bad attitude toward the native people. Ryan also gets in trouble with Loklok, a warrior from a related tribe who is engaged to the girl who found Ryan, Alinga, and is jealous of her feelings for the white man. After a fight with Loklok, it seems better for Ryan to go. He hires on at a sheep ranch.

In the ten years that follow, Ryan not only survives but prospers. He starts several businesses, all successful, though he is dogged by the enemies he's made: Fraser and Loklok. McLaughlin emphasises the adventure inherent in starting businesses from scratch in a new land. As in the excellent television series Deadwood about the western U.S., we follow the baby steps of the settlers as they move from frontier to civilised society. Ryan becomes peripherally involved in an uprising by settlers objecting to British taxes. This is one of the few times he refers back to his life in Canada and his experience there of strategy and guerilla warfare.

The characters are well drawn. We see Ryan's shortcomings as well as his virtues. Even Loklok and Fraser have some internal conflicts. Loklok and Fraser are convincing, in part because they do have some good qualities, but also because we get hints as to how they became the men they are.

The story has lots of historical detail. I'm not expert enough to verify its accuracy, but certainly McLaughlin cites many sources. In the Note at the end he explains what elements of the story are fictional (all of the main characters) and what are nonfictional, describing the real people on whom some of the characters are based and the revolt against the British. McLaughlin also provides a glossary of Wadawurrung words used, though I didn't need to use it, finding the context sufficient.

The action is pretty non-stop, but I enjoyed especially the rare descriptions of the land.

Ryan can now appreciate the scenery he missed the day he washed ashore. A river ten paces wide at the mouth penetrates the land without rapids or obstacle as far as he can see from the beach. Behind the row of dunes, a narrow tableland abuts a wall of precipitous hills. Row upon row of gum trees cover the slopes. Ryan catches glimpses of nearby thick trunks through which parrots of green, red and blue dart with noisy squawks. In the distance, the conglomeration of treetops reminds Ryan of a green, woolen sweater draped across broad shoulders.

While this is a sequel to McLaughlin's novel about the Patriot Wars, it can be read as a standalone. Anyone who enjoys historical novels, stories of adventure, or Australia's early days will like this book.

Are you fascinated by Australia? Why?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.