16th Apr 2012
Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart
The road called Sanctuary Line is the physical thread that runs through the landscape of Jane Urquhart’s seventh novel. It is the route that Liz, our narrator and an entomologist, drives each day between the research station and her family home, an idyllic fruit farm located next to Lake Erie.
Now forty years old, she’s come back to the farm of her childhood and lives there alone, surrounded by memories of the Butler family.
Empty rooms, the vast landscape and the overgrown orchards force her to recall and reflect upon the unresolved disappearance of her uncle, the recent death of her cousin in Afghanistan and the young Mexican worker she once could have loved.
These reflections spread across seas to the fantastic stories her uncle, the unreliable narrator, would tell her about the ‘old great greats’ from North America to Ireland.
He is a charismatic figure who enchants Liz and her cousins with his folklore of the Butler family but who suffers dramatic mood swings and is slowly shown to be the epicentre of the family’s troubles and the tragic events that are revealed.
The significant breadth of geography, generations and time in Sanctuary Line makes this novel feel symbolic of something more than just the family at the very centre of it.
Liz says ‘it’s difficult to believe that the fields and orchards ever existed outside of my own memories, my own imagination’, and it’s that exploration of how we form memories, what remains significant when someone is gone and how we shape the past retrospectively that really gives you something to think about.
It’s a novel for lovers of literature with poignant poetry woven quite seamlessly into the narrative. Urquhart’s prose struck me as slightly laboured or awkward at first, but after a while this seemed an integral part of Liz’s voice.
She is someone struggling to carefully define who she is against her family and the events of their past. Her voice is an intimate, engrossing and confiding one that makes you feel invested in her story and follow her through to the satisfying, but difficult, discoveries at the end.
Urquhart’s descriptions of her homeland, Ontario, are a real pleasure to read, with symbolic images of flourishing fruit trees, barns ablaze on the landscape and the migration of the Monarch butterfly that she studies so intently.
Sanctuary Line has left me thinking on what is left behind when we’re gone. For those remaining, like Liz Crane, it is often stories unsolved, untold and houses filled with shadows of lives once lived.
Recommended for: Some deep thinking, fantastical family folklore and dramatic events.
Other recommended reading: The epigraph at the beginning of the novel is from The Open Boat by Stephen Crane. I enjoyed The Red Badge of Courage by Crane, so will be sure to give one of his lesser known stories a try.