Growing up, and even now, I wouldn’t have considered Jane Urquhart to be on my list I have of authors I have read. My tastes tend to lie within the post-modern, transgressive worlds of Tom Robbins, Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Coupland, Kurt Vonnegut and Christopher Moore. Yet, I was given Urquhart’s latest book “The Night Stages” in preparation for an interview and while I was a little lost with plot at times, I very much appreciated the stark imagistic and poetic language that was so present and effervescent in Urquhart’s writing.
Perhaps it was the fact that she started off as poet, that Urquhart is able to string together descriptive words to form thoughtful and colourful phrases that paint a picture worthy of Van Gogh’s brush. Right off the bat, on page eight, one of my favourite lines occurs: ” Her white cottage, an unlit rectangle against a sky busy with stars, is as grey as the car”. It is simultaneously pleasing and melancholy. A bright and powerful structure that is also contains a dull simplicity.
And this, I feel, is the real victory of “The Night Stages, a transatlantic tale of love, loss, thoughtfulness and adventure. The dual nature of Urquhart’s words parallel’s the back-and-forth emotions of the novel’s main characters: an English woman leaving her Irish meteorologist lover; Kenneth Lochhead, a Canadian artist, the woman’s Irish lover, and the Irishman’s long-lost younger brother. The complexities of these intertwining narratives are both depressing and hopeful, but very much relatable.
Kieran’s – the long-lost brother – sense of adventure is palpable, as is Kenneth Lochhead’s methods of inserting real-life inspiration into his artwork. Meanwhile, Englishwoman Tam’s contemplativeness and reflection on her relationship with Niall and her memories, while stuck at the Gander Airport, which is home to a large mural by Lochhead, silently and gently plays with our own feelings.
Like many of Urquhart’s previous work, this novel is set in the historical past, mainly the 1940s and 1950s. It is a testament to her work as a writer that Urquhart is able to create a believability about the era that is not often not present in works of historical fiction.
The Irish connection struck me the most. When one thinks of Ireland, an often dreary view comes to the forefront of the mind. And yet, the Irish can portray their thoughts and feelings like few others can. James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, among countless others have taught us that Ireland is not only rich with history, but has a powerful literary culture that has helped shaped our understanding of the 20th century. Jane Urquhart also spent some time living in Ireland – in County Kerry where much of the narrative takes place – which is why she is so accurately able to portray the country life that runs present throughout her elegiac tale.
Ultimately, while it is sometimes difficult to pick out who the story is actually about – Urquhart herself goes back and forth between Kieran and Tam – there is no doubt that “The Night Stages” is a finely crafted work-of-art. Don’t be expecting a page-turner of Harry Potter-like fashion. Urquhart’s novel is more akin to Beethoven or Mozart rather than the pop-music sensibilities of fantasy and YA novels. That doesn’t mean either is invalid. With “The Night Stages”, it is a book you want to sit back and enjoy with a cup of peppermint tea, a weeklong perusal that will hopefully leave you feeling peaceful.
The Night Stages was released April 7, 2015 by Penguin Random House Canada