A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart

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The Independent Culture

Best known over here for the 2001 Booker longlisted The Stone Carvers, Urquhart has spent the past 20 years developing a distinctive blend of fiction that merges history, human conflict and the wilds of the Canadian landscape. A Map of Glass extends those themes with varying degrees of success. Jerome McNaughton, a twentysomething "earth artist" takes up a winter residency on Timber Island: "situated at the spot where the Great Lake Ontario begins to narrow so that it can enter the St Lawrence River. Scattered islands with odd names appear at this point." Jerome constructs the kind of pretentious sculptures that are at one with nature (fenced off rivers, paddocks circled in feathers). However, he's hardly had time to get in tune with the season before he stumbles across a body encased in an iceberg. The corpse proves to be that of Andrew Woodman, historical geographer and great-great-grandson of a timber yard magnate. A year after the discovery, Sylvia, Andrew's ex-lover, turns up at Jerome's door to talk about their doomed affair.

Urquhart is brilliant at nailing the details of rural life, from the slow passage of an iceflow to the intractable solidity of boulders. This skill comes to the fore in the central, most affecting, section of the book, which chronicles the history of the local timber empire. The collision between human endeavour and the elements has always shaped the finest rustic novels. There is a stunning passage describing the return of Andrew's great-grandfather to the island after a period studying in Paris. He is struck by the harsh reality of home: "Not pastoral and bucolic as he preferred to recall it, but raw and unfinished and in what looked to be a state of complete destruction. Felled and ruined trees were being floated down the lake to his father's docks. Raw and unfinished timber was being hastily assembled in order to construct the merchant ships that would litter the lake's surface."

The book's chief problem is the dialogue, which is frequently stilted and occasionally nothing short of psychobabble. (At one point Jerome states that he likes "geographical allegiances. Allegiances to bodies of water.") Characters should be tethered to their environment by their actions alone.The moment a writer intellectualises the landscape in a character's speech the spell is broken. If Urquhart learns that lesson, she could follow this fine effort with the perfect countryside alliance between style and substance.