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Fiction Historical

The Underpainter

by (author) Jane Urquhart

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
May 2011
Historical, Literary, 20th Century
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2011
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 1998
    List Price
  • CD-Audio

    Publish Date
    Jan 2019
    List Price

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The Underpainter is a novel of interwoven lives in which the world of art collides with the realm of human emotion. It is the story of Austin Fraser, an American painter now in his later years, who is haunted by memories of those whose lives most deeply touched his own, including a young Canadian soldier and china painter and the beautiful model who becomes Austin’s mistress. Spanning decades, the setting moves from upstate New York to the northern shores of two Great Lakes; from France in World War One to New York City in the ’20s and ’30s. Brilliantly depicting landscape and the geography of the imagination, The Underpainter is Jane Urquhart’s most accomplished novel to date.

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.

Jane Urquhart's profile page


  • Winner, Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction
  • Nominated, Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award - Fiction Book of the Year
  • Nominated, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Excerpt: The Underpainter (by (author) Jane Urquhart)

The woman is standing near the window in the downstairs front room of a log house on the north shore of Lake Superior.

It is the winter of 1937.

She is wearing a grey tweed skirt and a checked woollen bush jacket. Her dark-blonde hair is pulled back from her face and hangs in a thick braid almost to her waist. Despite the fact that she has kept her fires – both in the Quebec heater in this room and in the stove in the kitchen – burning all night, it is cold enough that she can see her breath. In her hand she holds an un - opened envelope with the words “Canadian National Tele gram” printed on it. Her head is bent and her shoulders are slightly stooped as she stares at this folded and glued piece of paper.

To the left and to the right of the house in which she stands lies a series of similar homes built for the miners who arrived in this place in the 1860s. Since the penultimate closure of the silver mine in 1884, all but a few of these dwellings are abandoned in winter. In recent decades they have been used as summer residences only by certain adventurous families from the small twin cities of Port Arthur and Fort William, which are situated sixteen miles to the west but cannot be seen from here because a limb of the huge, human-shaped peninsula of rock, known as The Sleeping Giant, hides them from view.

This unconscious granite figure is famous. In the summer, tourists driving the gorgeous north shore of Lake Superior stop their cars and stare across Thunder Bay at his reclining body. Passengers who have travelled on the Trans-Canada train can bring his physique to mind long after mountains and prairies have faded from memory. He is twenty miles long, this person made from northern landscape, and, in 1937, no roads as yet have scarred his skin. According to the Ojibway, who have inhabited this region for hundreds of years, he was turned to stone as punishment for revealing the secret location of silver to white men greedy enough to demand the information. He will lie forever obdurate, unyielding, stretched across the bay.

The little settlement of Silver Islet Landing, where the woman lives, occupies a site on his anatomy sometimes referred to as “the toe of the giant.”

During the brief summer season, bonfires bloom nightly on the small offshore islands she can see from her front windows. Swimmers dive from the dock near the large clapboard building that acts as a hotel and a store. Steamers, which provide the only transportation to the spot, ply back and forth from Port Arthur; the narrow track near the shore is filled with running children. Occasionally games and entertainments take place on the sand beach at the end of the lane. There is often laughter, and sometimes singing.

By mid-September, stillness and quiet are reinstated, the summer population having returned to the schools and industries of daily life. One old government official, who is responsible for the maintenance of two lighthouses and for the sporadic winter postal deliveries, remains in his house near the dock. And the woman remains in her cabin a little farther down the shore. By the time the world begins to frost, and then to freeze, even the memory of the summer activity seems unreal, as if it had been a mere performance and she a witness – not even a member of the audience but a stranger in the wings.

When these houses were built, almost eighty years before, the need for shelter was so pressing that the mining company was forced to use unseasoned timber, which had warped in odd directions over the course of the first year. On frigid January mornings, the miners, their wives and children, had awakened to the sight of miniature snowdrifts on the floor and ragged open spaces between the logs. The gaps were swiftly filled with anything that came to hand – socks, knitted hats, treasured table linen from the Old Country. Eventually the houses gave up the struggle, settled, and became stable. Only then were the upstairs walls plastered and whitewashed. On the ground storey the logs remained – and still remain – exposed in the parlour and the kitchen.

Once when the woman was driving a nail between the timbers to hang a picture that I had given her – a picture of herself in her summer garden – a chunk of caulking gave way and an embroidered handkerchief, edged in lace, fell like a message out of the wall.

She is standing near the window beside a rough log wall.

The unopened telegram in her hand appears to have already darkened with time, darkened in comparison to the white snow around her house, the brightness of sun that enters the room. She pushes a tendril of hair behind her ear, a strand that has escaped the braid. This strand contains some threads of grey.

She stares at the envelope, then lifts her head to watch the departure of the mail sled, its driver and team of noisy dogs, to watch it glide over the snow-covered ice and disappear behind Burnt Island. For several minutes she wants to refuse the message she has not yet read. The world around her is quiet and fixed, frozen and beautiful. She does not want the scene disturbed. Even the tracks of the sled irritate her; they have scarred the white surface, they have soiled the day.

The woman’s winters are long and bright and silent. Just before nightfall the landscape blossoms into various shades of blue. Few events interrupt the tranquillity; a storm, maybe, or the delivery of supplies, or her own infrequent journeys over ice, around Thunder Cape, into Port Arthur. She has come to rely on the predictability of the season, its lengthiness, its cold. She doubts she would be able to understand a life without it.

She crosses the room and lifts the lid of the Quebec heater, which she holds at the end of the lever for some time as if not quite certain why she has taken this action. For a moment it looks as if she will toss the telegram, unread, into the fire. But this is not what she wants. When she replaces the lid, there is the sound of cast iron striking cast iron, a sound so familiar to her she barely hears it.

Sitting on the chair nearest the stove’s heat, she carefully opens the envelope. It falls to her lap. She reads the contents.

Almost immediately she decides to leave. In her father’s long-ago abandoned room upstairs, she takes his ancient mining clothes from the closet, shakes the dust from the overalls, and removes her jacket and skirt. She covers her feet in several layers of socks and steps into his boots, his overalls, then puts on his large down-filled parka. This is the costume she occasionally wears when she is outdoors in winter, though she knows it to be somewhat ridiculous on the body of a woman entering middle age. Outside her door she reaches for the skis leaning against the outer log wall, places them side by side on the paper-dry snow, tightens the leather straps over her father’s boots, and sets out.

Just before she passes, like the mail sled an hour ago, between the mainland and Burnt Island, she turns to look back at the shore, back at the house she is leaving behind her. There is no differentiation, in this season, between water and land. A delicate wisp of smoke is escaping from her chimney, though she has added no wood at all to her fire this morning.

It is six and a half miles to Thunder Cape, a large spearhead of land rising thirteen hundred feet and clearly visible across the frozen bay. She will spend the night with the couple that keeps the lighthouse there. Tomorrow she will ski sixteen miles across Thunder Bay to the modest lakehead city of Port Arthur.

All of this is a very long time ago now, forty years at least. A very long time ago and purely hypothetical on my part. I did not see her leave her house, ski towards Thunder Cape, turn to watch the thin trail of smoke emerge from her chimney. I did not see her shake the dust off of her father’s underground clothes or strap the skis to his large boots.

The telegram she carries in her pocket, or has left behind on the kitchen table, or has thrown into the trash, the telegram I never saw but know for certain she received and read, has told her that I, Austin Fraser, am waiting in Port Arthur, in a fifth floor hotel room, hours of distance away.

Editorial Reviews

“Her language is pure, dazzling in its precision, like the etching of ice on glass.”
Globe and Mail

“A painterly masterwork . . . poignant in each of its several landscapes and subtle in tracing the mingled nuances of love and pain.”
Kirkus Reviews

“The detached eye of the narrator never falters, though passion hums beneath the surface like some vast primeval beast beneath the ice.”
The Independent (U.K.)

“Writing with the eye of a painter, Urquhart transforms the energy of the world into enduring literature.”
Kitchener-Waterloo Record

“Urquhart is one of Canada’s most accomplished and interesting writers.”
Edmonton Journal

“Original and dazzling, radiant and quietly perceptive, Urquhart’s new novel delights the senses even as it astonishes the mind.”
London Free Press

“A lyrical novel with a deep, unsentimental connection to ordinary life. . . . [Urquhart’s] language is vivid enough to take your breath away.”
Boston Globe

“Urquhart explores the ability to love and the failure to love; the visual pictures and images of humanity beneath the surfaces on which art is created. The Underpainter is a savory read.”

“Urquhart’s evocation of time and place shimmers with clarity.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Urquhart has written a novel whose narrative power matches her delicate artistry with words . . . lodges in the mind and heart forever.”
–Montreal Gazette

“Richly textured prose, and an intricate, many layered structure.”
Sunday Times (U.K.)

“A rich, multifaceted story, skillfully told.”
San Francisco Chronicle

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