A Canadian of Irish descent, prizewinning author Jane Urquhart offers four generations of family history from Ireland just before the famine of the mid-19th century, through desperate emigration to Canada and final settlement and prosperity on the shores of Lake Ontario. Away is a ravishing evocation of the lives of those whose souls are irrevocably touched by nature. It is also, subtly and cunningly, about female independence.
The beginning of Away is understatedly erotic. It is set in 1842 on a small island at the northernmost tip of Ireland. This is the home of Mary O'Malley, a peasant's daughter who is young, flame-haired and beautiful. The island is attacked overnight by a terrifying storm, which leaves the beach awash with whisky bottles, cabbages, silver teapots and a dying sailor. Mary finds him, and the description of his body and its effect on her is immensely powerful. She hears his last words and falls asleep in his arms, only to be woken by a fearful, self-crossing crowd who are convinced that her soul has been taken over by otherworldly forces and that she is now, as they see it, 'away'.
Of course Mary is touched by her experience, but what touched her is something her traditional society does not wish her to have. In her is engendered an inner separateness, a wandering wildness, which she eventually passes down to her daughter, Eileen, and great-granddaughter, Esther.
Only the local schoolteacher, who does not believe in the state of 'away', will marry her. What is effective is Urquhart's deliberate lack of deep characterisation of Mary - she comes across as a force of nature, while Brian is a toiler in the soil, 'as if his soul were stitched . . . into the earth.' The horror of the potato famine and the greed of English landlords (though those here are ignorant, not tyrants) drive thousands, including Mary's little family, across the Atlantic, where they set up home against all odds.
There are struggles, and many, perhaps too many, characters both comic and magical. Occasionally the humorous scenes are slightly unsure of themselves. But this is more than made up for by Urquhart's sensuous, tactile language and, particularly, by a tragedy late on in the book that exposes, quite unforgettably, the absolute difference between female idealism and male politics.
Despite the aged Eileen's admonishment to the young Esther that she must try to understand her ancestors' story but not to 'interpret' it, it is impossible to avoid doing so. The book's epigraph says that 'the three most short-lived traces' are the 'trace of a bird on a branch, the trace of a fish on a pool, and the trace of a man on a woman'. The O'Malley women live on, through spiritual strength and genetic tenacity. The men who come into their lives never quite match up to them.
The book's end, however, points sadly onwards. The time is now. Eileen sits and looks over the family farm she has managed so brilliantly on the shore of the great lake, all the time hearing the encroaching 'scream' of machinery as the nearby quarry grows and grows.