Interview: Away with the Irish

Jane Urquhart, a sort of 20th-century Canadian Bronte Sister, has written a very Superior novel about the far North. Jasper Rees takes the guided tour

Jane Urquhart's fourth novel, The Underpainter, opens in deep winter on the northern shore of Lake Superior, in an old silver-mining community deserted by all but the novel's luminous, unknowable heroine. She has one of those visceral relationships with the landscape which are only possible if you live all the year round in the middle of inhospitable nowhere.

It is a brief, gorgeously cinematic prologue before the novel migrates into the heat of summer and into the curiously detached relationship between an artist and a hotel worker.

Urquhart's theory is that Canadians are as inclined to read/write about where they came from as where they came to. Urquhart planted her flag on the literary map with Away, which acknowledged the country's vast but voiceless Irish ancestry.

Unprecedently for a serious work of Canadian fiction, it set up camp at the top of the bestseller list and stayed for two and a half years, enforcing a telling adjustment to the "She lives in..." pay-off of the biog blurb on her book jackets. Whereas once she had so few readers she could practically give out the address, "We have now had to put `she lives in a small south-western Ontario village'." To be strictly accurate, the success of Away has allowed her to live in two places; she recently invested in a cottage in County Kerry, making her, she says, the first of her clan to do the emigre's journey in the other direction.

Away was so popular that its author worried there might be something wrong with the book. There was no such inchoate mass response to either The Whirlpool or Changing Heaven, which tell of obsessions with, respectively, the Niagara Falls and Wuthering Heights. Away simply touched a nerve.

"I hadn't thought of this until I wrote the book," she says, "but no one had really dealt in more than a uni-dimensional way with the first wave of immigration to Canada. The collective unconscious for some reason in the country seemed to need that. Also, we had all been brainwashed into believing that we were either British or French, which is a complete nonsense. I discovered as a result of the hundreds of letters I received that it was astonishing the number of people who had at least one arm of their family that was Irish."

Some of the book's more obsessive fans have used the novel as a literary guidebook, progressing like pilgrims around the localities it visits. You could do the same with The Underpainter and end up making a journey of hallucinogenic variety.

Austin Fraser, the "underpainter" of the book's title, is an artist from an early 20th-century American school that developed a passion for the spiritual purity of the great North. Thus he winters in New York City but each summer snakes up through Lake Ontario before ploughing further up into the wilderness at the top of Superior. There he annually communes with Sara, a holiday-season hotel worker whom the artist in him sees as an embodiment of the wilderness. He paints and mounts her with the same detached curiosity that governs all his relationships, specifically those with Canadian friends who bring back first-hand tales of the horrors of the Great War that he, as an American, avoids. Just as he puts distance between himself and experience, his artistic signature is to make "underpaintings" of photographic accuracy, then systematically erase them beneath blobby encrustations of amorphous colour.

Urquhart makes reference in the novel to her narrator's "Arctic interior". Can she plead not guilty to the charge of mining her subjects until the seam is empty? "I would like to be able to say I'm tremendously sensitive about the subjects that I choose and the way I use the material and I'm always worried about how my work is going to be affecting others. In order to be honest I think you have to admit that, if your unconscious can come up with something like that, there's some of that in me."

Urquhart has not yet written anything as conventional as an autobiographical novel, and doubts she ever will. "Daily reality doesn't interest me at all," she says, so bang goes the campus satire about teaching at the University of Toronto.

The Underpainter gets at once closer to and further away from her own life than its three predecessors. For the first time she has strayed out of the 19th century but then, also for the first time, she has written from a male point of view.

"I think suddenly I felt old enough," she explains. "I think I grew up. It's about time to, considering I'm 48 years old. Between the writing of the last novel and this one, maturity finally entered my system and I felt I could cope with something a little closer to reality. Perhaps I wasn't using writing quite as much as an escape as I had in the past."

She was born in a place not unlike Silver Islet, the abandoned mining community where Sara lives. Her father was a prospector, and pioneered in the north for 20 years. "It was really quite something: no road, bush planes, all of that."

Her first husband, whose death in a car crash widowed Urquhart at 24, attended the sort of dogmatic art school where Fraser is lectured in his craft.

"I suppose that, yes, the desire to write about that kind of academisation of the art school and the incredible effect that the grand master has in a stylistic sense upon the students got into the novel."

If Urquhart has a comparable figure in her own apprenticeship, it is probably one or another of the Brontes, with whom she shares a fascination for the gothic, wind-whipped outdoors and intricately meshed time-schemes.

A character called Jane Eyre turns up in The Underpainter and old age finds Fraser retiring to Rochester, NY. There's clearly a part of her that wants to keep a toe in the 19th century, of a piece with her claim to be "dependent just for my own entertainment and amusement on my imagination". As a child, she hatched an ambition to be a Broadway star. "I was just inventing a world. I had a pen pal who was a child star. I wrote to her with my idea of how marvellous the whole thing was. She wrote back saying, `Do you have any pets? What time do you go to school in the morning?'"

`The Underpainter' is published by Bloomsbury at pounds 14.99

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Sport
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
football
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
News
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<p>
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
</p>
<p>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
<p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
<p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
News
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?