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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