A man in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's disease wanders across an uninhabited island in Southern Ontario and lies down, exhausted, in a snow bed. Jerome, a young artist, using the same winter landscape for a project about shipwrecks, finds the corpse frozen beneath the ice weeks later. A year on, a woman claiming to be the dead man's lover appears at Jerome's studio and sets off a chain of unexpected emotional events.
Jane Urquhart, the Canadian author of several acclaimed novels including The Stone Carvers, has now written a brilliantly multi-layered narrative that delves deeply into the meaning of memory. Jerome refuses to discuss with his lover his own painful family history - an alcoholic father and brutalised mother - while Sylvia must battle against autism to learn a language that will enable her to remember her dead lover, Andrew. The daughter of a small-town doctor, Sylvia is married to Malcolm, her father's successor. She is written off as disabled until she begins this secret love affair.
But if love is what sets these characters free, it is art that enables them to realise their experience. Sylvia creates textural maps for a blind friend, and pores over Andrew's legacy: a local history that he has spent a lifetime compiling, and which she lends to Jerome.
He has ventured on to the island to make a series of photographs, which he will later use to create images of the ships that were wrecked against its shores. Malcolm just wants back a wife whom he can treat like an invalid.
Interleaved with the contemporary story, Urquhart recreates Andrew's memoir, peppered with its own cast of dynamic characters who inhabit a place and time that lives now only through his words. Her sense of the larger issues of history and the fragility of human relationships within them are, at moments, deeply poignant. Sylvia and Andrew's hidden love, which prompts her to redefine her relationship with the world, suggests that her grief is the wellspring for a more deeply examined life.
The only challenge that is not fully realised here is with Sylvia's autism, which is hinted at but never named. Either Sylvia has overcome the limits of her condition through her affair with Andrew, or it was always a label applied by overprotective parents who raised their only daughter in a deeply conservative small town where nothing was expected of her. Sylvia, too, offers a way for Jerome to heal the rift with his past.
The story does, at times, stretch the bounds of credibility on this point, but the power and depth of Urquhart's writing easily overcome this minor flaw.
Julie Wheelwright's books include 'The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the myth of female espionage'Reuse content