Jane Urquhart’s new novel, Sanctuary Line, tells the story of an extended family living, among other places, on the north shore of Lake Erie. The family came from Ireland and is full of lighthouse keepers, farmers, and orchardists, or at least it was until the most recent generation, which has moved on to other things. Now the farm on Lake Erie is falling into disrepair. The story is told in the first person by Liz Crane who is living alone in the old farmhouse, mourning the loss of her cousin, who has died in combat in Afghanistan. She is a scientist and is conducting research on monarch butterflies. She gives us some details of her current work and her isolated life, but most of the book is filled with stories from her childhood and family legends, many of which have come down to her from her uncle, a charismatic but troubled man. The narrator moves back and forth among all these narratives, building up a picture of the place and the family. The tension in the novel concerns what happened one summer during Liz’s adolescence, a series of events that transformed her life and led to her uncle’s permanent disappearance.
The writing here is beautiful, and Urquhart evokes such a strong sense of place, it made me nostalgic for an area I’ve never seen (although it seems not so different from the south shore of Lake Ontario, which is where I grew up). The novel verges on being too slow in its pacing, and it probably will be too slow for some people. She takes her time with the narrator’s various tales and stories, but I found myself wrapped up in the novel’s atmosphere and wanting to know what happened that summer. I wasn’t sure I liked Urquhart’s choice to have her narrator address an unnamed “you” in her account of her life; this “you” wasn’t consistently evoked and seemed unnecessary, although this does eventually get resolved. But mostly the novel felt satisfyingly rich in its portrayal of the changes time can bring.