A MAP OF GLASS by Jane Urquhart (McClelland & Stewart), 371 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Beautiful but too pristine - that's how I'd describe A Map Of Glass.
Jane Urquhart's new novel explores earth's fragility, lost love and commercial excess in the context of a fascinating period of Ontario history. Full of rich imagery, the book - its title, a loaded metaphor, refers to the human need to chart something that's constantly changing - is terribly precise in evoking a period.
It's also about the creative process, a consistent preoccupation in Urquhart's fiction. In the first of three sections, Jerome, a visual artist working in a lakeside abandoned building near Belleville, comes across the frozen corpse of historian Andrew Woodman. Later, Woodman's seemingly unstable lover, Sylvia, visits Jerome and his performance-artist girlfriend in his loft and gives him Woodman's journals and notebooks.
The content of these journals makes up the second section, the strongest of the three, tracing the rise and fall of the timber trade and barley farming before the turn of the 20th century, both done in by the appalling greed of all involved. A third segment comes back to the T.O. loft and Jerome's feelings of increasing connectedness to the troubled Sylvia.
There are moments that are jaw-droppingly evocative - Andrew's ancestor Annabelle meeting her repellent niece-to-be, the soil turning to sand that creeps into the hotel rooms and the food - but elsewhere the writing is too studied.
Urquhart's perfect prose fails to draw you in. Instead, it distances you from the characters, making it hard to get emotionally hooked.
Fans will love it. But sometimes pristine prose thwarts even the most gifted writer's intentions.