With stunning virtuosity, the stories in Jane Urquhart’s dazzling first book of fiction unearth universal truths as they reach across countries and eras. A woman runs away to a cottage in the English moors to escape a love affair; shards of glass reconcile a middle-aged wife to her husband’s estrangement; a grandmother makes a startling confession from her youth; a young woman discovers herself through the life of an Italian saint; and, in a spellbinding story of artistic jealousy, we enter the mind of poet Robert Browning at the end of his life. In these beautifully crafted stories, ordinary objects brim with meaning and memories radiate with significance as Jane Urquhart illuminates the things that lie just beneath the surface of our lives.
About the author
Jane Urquhart was born in the far north of Ontario. She is the author of eight internationally acclaimed novels, among them The Whirlpool, which received France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger; Away, winner of the Trillium Award, The Underpainter, winner of the Governor General’s Award and a finalist for the Orange Prize in the UK and The Stone Carvers, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award and Britain’s Booker Prize. She is also the author of a collection of short fiction and four books of poetry. She has written a biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery and was editor of the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. Her work, which is published in many countries, has been translated into numerous foreign languages. Urquhart has received the Marian Engel Award and the Harbourfront Festival Prize. She is a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Urquhart has received ten honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto, University of Western Ontario and the Royal Military College of Canada. She has served on the Board of PEN Canada, on the Advisory Board for the Restoration of the Vimy Memorial and on several international prize juries including that of the International Dublin IMPAC Award, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the American International Neustadt Award.
Her most recent novel, The Night Stages, was released in 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US, McClelland and Stewart in Canada and Oneworld in the UK.
Urquhart lives in southeastern Ontario with her husband, artist Tony Urquhart.
Excerpt: Storm Glass (by (author) Jane Urquhart)
In December of 1889, as he was returning by gondola from the general vicinity of the Palazzo Manzoni, it occurred to Robert Browning that he was more than likely going to die soon. This revelation had nothing to do with either his advanced years or the state of his health. He was seventy-seven, a reasonably advanced age, but his physical condition was described by most of his acquaintances as vigorous and robust. He took a cold bath each morning and every afternoon insisted on a three-mile walk during which he performed small errands from a list his sister had made earlier in the day. He drank moderately and ate well. His mind was as quick and alert as ever.
Nevertheless, he knew he was going to die. He also had to admit that the idea had been with him for some time – two or three months at least. He was not a man to ignore symbols, especially when they carried personal messages. Now he had to acknowledge that the symbols were in the air as surely as winter. Perhaps, he speculated, a man carried the seeds of his death with him always, somewhere buried in his brain, like the face of a woman he is going to love. He leaned to one side, looked into the deep waters of the canal, and saw his own face reflected there. As broad and distinguished and cheerful as ever, health shining vigorously, robustly from his eyes – even in such a dark mirror.
Empty Gothic and Renaissance palaces floated on either
side of him like soiled pink dreams. Like sunsets with dirty faces, he mused, and then, pleased with the phrase, he reached into his jacket for his notebook, ink pot and pen. He had trouble recording the words, however, as the chill in the air had numbed his hands. Even the ink seemed affected by the cold, not flowing as smoothly as usual. He wrote slowly and deliberately, making sure to add the exact time and the location. Then he closed the book and returned it with the pen and pot to his pocket, where he curled and uncurled his right hand for some minutes until he felt the circulation return to normal. The celebrated Venetian dampness was much worse in winter, and Browning began to look forward to the fire at his son’s palazzo where they would be beginning to serve afternoon tea, perhaps, for his benefit, laced with rum.
A sudden wind scalloped the surface of the canal. Browning instinctively looked upwards. Some blue patches edged by ragged white clouds, behind them wisps of grey and then the solid dark strip of a storm front moving slowly up on the horizon. Such a disordered sky in this season. No solid, predictable blocks of weather with definite beginnings, definite endings. Every change in the atmosphere seemed an emotional response to something that had gone before. The light, too, harsh and metallic, not at all like the golden Venice of summer. There was something broken about all of it, torn. The sky, for instance, was like a damaged canvas. Pleased again by his own metaphorical thoughts, Browning considered reaching for the notebook. But the cold forced him to reject the idea before it had fully formed in his mind.
Instead, his thoughts moved lazily back to the place they had been when the notion of death so rudely interrupted them; back to the building he had just visited. Palazzo Manzoni. Bello, bello Palazzo Manzoni! The colourful marble medallions rolled across Browning’s inner eye, detached from their home on the Renaissance façade, and he began, at once, to reconstruct for the thousandth time the imaginary windows and balconies he had planned for the building’s restoration. In his daydreams the old poet had walked over the palace’s swollen marble floors and slept beneath its frescoed ceilings, lit fires underneath its sculptured mantels and entertained guests by the light of its chandeliers.
Surrounded by a small crowd of admirers he had read poetry aloud in the evenings, his voice echoing through the halls. No R.B. tonight, he had said to them, winking, Let’s have some real poetry. Then, moving modestly into the palace’s impressive library, he had selected a volume of Dante or Donne. But they had all discouraged him and it had never come to pass. Some of them said that the façade was seriously cracked and the foundations were far from sound. Others told him that the absentee owner would never part with it for anything resembling a fair price. Eventually, friends and family wore him down with their disapproval and, on their advice, he abandoned his daydream though he still made an effort to visit it, despite the fact that it was now damaged and empty and the glass in its windows was broken.
It was the same kind of frustration and melancholy that he associated with his night dreams of Asolo, the little hill town he had first seen (and then only at a distance), when he was twenty-six years old. Since that time, and for no rational reason, it had appeared over and over in the poet’s dreams as a destination on the horizon, one that, due to a variety of circumstances, he was never able to reach. Either his companions in the dream would persuade him to take an alternate route, or the road would be impassable, or he would awaken just as the town gate came into view, frustrated and out of sorts. “I’ve had my old Asolo dream again,” he would tell his sister at breakfast, “and it has no doubt ruined my work for the whole day.”
Then, just last summer, he had spent several months there at the home of a friend. The house was charming and the view of the valley delighted him. But, although he never once broke the well-established order that ruled the days of his life, a sense of unreality clouded his perceptions. He was visiting the memory of a dream with a major and important difference. He had reached the previously elusive hill town with practically no effort. Everything had proceeded according to plan. Thinking about this, under the December sky in Venice, Browning realized that he had known since then that it was only going to be a matter of time.
The gondola bumped against the steps of his son’s palazzo. Robert Browning climbed onto the terrace, paid the gondolier, and walked briskly inside.
Lying on the magnificent carved bed in his room, trying unsuccessfully to surrender himself to his regular pre-dinner nap, Robert Browning examined his knowledge like a stolen jewel he had coveted for years; turning it first this way, then that, imagining the reactions of his friends, what his future biographers would have to say about it all. He was pleased that he had prudently written his death poem at Asolo in direct response to having received a copy of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” in the mail. How he detested that poem! What could Alfred have been thinking of when he wrote it? He had to admit, none the less, that to suggest that mourners restrain their sorrow, as Tennyson had, guarantees the floodgates of female tears will eventually burst open. His poem had, therefore, included similar sentiments, but without, he hoped, such obvious sentimentality. It was the final poem of his last manuscript which was now, mercifully, at the printers.
Something for the biographers and for the weeping maidens; those who had wept so copiously for his dear departed, though soon to be reinstated wife. Surely it was not too much to ask that they might shed a few tears for him as well, even if it was a more ordinary death, following, he winced to have to add, a fairly conventional life.
How had it all happened? He had placed himself in the centre of some of the world’s most exotic scenery and had then lived his life there with the regularity of a copy clerk. A time for everything, everything in its time. Even when hunting for lizards in Asolo, an occupation he considered slightly exotic, he found he could predict the moment of their appearance; as if they knew he was searching for them and assembled their modest population at the sound of his footsteps. Even so, he was able to flush out only six or seven from a hedge of considerable length and these were, more often than not, of the same type. Once he thought he had seen a particularly strange lizard, large and lumpy, but it had turned out to be merely two of the ordinary sort, copulating.
Copulation. What sad dirge-like associations the word dredged up from the poet’s unconscious. All those Italians; those minstrels, dukes, princes, artists, and questionable monks whose voices had droned through Browning’s pen over the years. Why had they all been so endlessly obsessed with the subject? He could never understand or control it. And even now, one of them had appeared in full period costume in his imagination. A duke, no doubt, by the look of the yards of velvet which covered his person. He was reading a letter that was causing him a great deal of pain. Was it a letter from his mistress? A draught of poison waited on an intricately tooled small table to his left. Perhaps a pistol or a dagger as well, but in this light Browning could not quite tell. The man paced, paused, looked wistfully out the window as if waiting for someone he knew would never, ever appear. Very, very soon now he would begin to speak, to tell his story. His right hand passed nervously across his eyes. He turned to look directly at Robert Browning who, as always, was beginning to feel somewhat embarrassed.
“Urquhart combines the poet’s passionate feeling for language and the material world with nearly a classicist’s sense of form.…A lavishness of imagination is brought to bear on small moments, and the writing is of such intensity that a character is often revealed in one expression, a way of life disclosed in a single scene.…”
–Ken Adachi, Toronto Star
“A collection of mythic, dreamlike stories.…Description of her tales belittles their strength and cannot convey the elegance of her prose.”
“Urquhart has impressive talent. There’s nothing simple and obvious here; concentric circles of meaning ripple out from the stories, and the prose shimmers like reflections in a deep pool.…”
–Globe and Mail