Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line weaves together many elements in the story of one family living in Ontario. The narrator, Liz Crane, has moved back to her family’s farmhouse to study the migratory pattern of monarch butterflies. But events, among which is the dead of her cousin, military strategist Amanda Butler, who was killed in Afghanistan, lead her to spend much of her time reflecting on the past of her family.
There is much to be said about Urquhart’s novel. For one, her prose is stunningly beautiful. What is more, she manages to achieve a lot in relatively few words and a relatively short novel. Through a form of storytelling that is calm, and comfortable, she alludes to grander themes that most humans encounter throughout their lives.
One such theme is that of sanctuary. In many ways, Liz relives the past to find comfort in how things used to be, or to find questions to how that comfort fell apart. At the same time, her story contains example after example of people failing to find sanctuary, or with a less grand gesture: comfort, somewhere, of the ruptures in the calm that will never be fully achieved. It can be found in every storyline, that of the butterflies, of Liz’s life, that of her family members, down to all the stories the family has told itself for decades to give a sense of grounding, of home, of tradition. It is really very admirably done.
I find it hard to tell you how I felt about Sanctuary Line. I could appreciate all that Urquhart did, I could appreciate the intricate ways in which grander themes are part of almost every page in the book, and her beautiful use of language. However, I am sorry to tell you that I could not love it. There is something very puzzling to writing about a book that holds so many perfections, but that you fail to connect to personally. It may have been the manner in which the story was told. Liz Crane as a narrator tells her story to someone, a “you”, of whom you only learn the identity at the end of the book. She assumes a familiarity with the landscape, with what she is ostensibly pointing out to the “you” in question. I constantly felt that this was a clever mechanism, as it has the reader imagining Liz is talking directly to him or her, but at the same time it kept me at a distance, knowing full well that I was not in that room looking out the window at the grounds with her. It may also have been that the build-up of the first half of the book was very slow, and there was no urgency to the storyline. It was clear that at some point, somewhere, something had happened, but the hints towards that something were too scattered, and I was too little involved with any of the characters mentioned to feel it mattered much. This changed once I was past page 100, when I started to care about the story and its execution. Too little, too late, in a sense. On the other hand, I do not feel Urquhart was trying to achieve a linear, thrilling storyline, but meant the book to be more of an exploration of themes and settings, of memories, comfort, and loss. And once I was past that page-100 point, my former hesitancy towards the novel disappeared.
I do appreciate all that Jane Urquhart did in Sanctuary Line, she delivered a beautifully executed story, tackling themes in an interesting way and in prose that I am sure many will love. Nevertheless, to a certain extent, it always remained just that to me, a story, not something I wanted or needed to relate to, or that felt very real until halfway into the book.