Book review: The Night Stages

The Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart has spent so much time in Ireland, particularly Kerry, that she has based her latest book — The Night Stages — here. She spoke to Sue Leonard about her more than enjoyable journey.

Jane Urquhart

Oneworld, €17.99; ebook, €9.69

THE Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart has always held Ireland close to her heart. Her ancestors emigrated from here, and she grew up with stories about Ireland, from her parents, who had never actually visited.

“They invented an imaginary Ireland about which they were tremendously sentimental,” she said.

Visiting Ballinskelligs with her artist husband, who had a residency in Cill Rialaig, she fell in love with a cottage, and has lived there for part of the year ever since. She was at the Writer’s Week in Listowel the year John B Keane died.

“That was heartbreaking, but life enhancing in a way. The energy around that town was like nothing I have ever experienced,” she says.

She adores the anger, and brutal honesty of Anne Enright’s writing, and the understated cadences of Colm Toibin; with all that background, it’s not surprising that Jane’s latest novel, her eighth, should take Kerry as its main setting.

“I’ve spent so much time in Kerry in the past 20 years, and the general texture has leapt into my books. There were suggestions of it in A Map of Glass, and a sub plot in The Sanctuary Line.”

The Night Stages, however, explores the stories, the landscape and sociological matters in the greatest depth.

The novel opens with Tamara leaving her home in Kerry in a great hurry. Divorced, then widowed, Tamara ferried Hurricanes and Spitfires in WWII; but recently she has become entrenched in an affair with Niall, who is married. 

Fog-bound in a remote airport, she looks back on her life, examining her options. And she scrutinises a massive mural. The book flits backwards and forwards, taking in the artists’ life, as well as the trials of Niall’s missing brother, the troubled Kieran.

Set in the 1950s , it’s a multi-faceted novel which also explores the difficulty of emigration. How did Jane manage to tie all the elements together?

“Some people would say I didn’t,” she says, laughing.

“The first draft of a novel is a leap of faith for me. But I feel I must be obsessed with all these different things for a reason. I keep exploring them, and by the middle of the first draft I am able to see where the story is going, and what is going to happen.”

The real life mural at the centre of the story has long fascinated the author.

“It was commissioned as part of a government programme trying to present Canada as a nation of culture. 

"In the late 1950s everybody travelling from north America to Europe stopped in Gander to refuel, and the government made this beautiful modernist terminal, hiring Kenneth Lochhead to paint the mural; but 18 months later planes were large enough to overfly Gander so the airport has become a little preserved world.

“I place Tamara there, because I thought how awful would it be if you had ended a relationship and you were stranded, grounded by fog in a land where there is nothing,” she says.

Another true life fascination for Jane was the Rás — the cycling race which, in the 1950s, was in its infancy. The race provides the climax for this story, as the brothers, approaching the race from very different skill-sets, battle it out for victory.

Kieran found his bicycle abandoned, with others, against a wall. This story was borrowed from Michael Phillips, a former Canadian ambassador for Ireland.

“His brother-in-law in Donegal had told him that in the 1950s, living on a farm just outside town, all these bicycles would appear, leaning against a wall.

"His father couldn’t work out why, but it turned out these young men were coming down the mountains, and leaving their bicycles there because they were emigrating, and knew they weren’t coming back. I thought that was heartbreaking,” she says.

I first met Jane in 2005, when she had just been awarded The Order of Canada. It’s hard to believe 10 years have passed since; at 66, the author still has a girlish enthusiasm, and sense of fun.

Canada is now a hotbed for literary talent, with masters of fine arts programmes opening up all around the country, but when Jane started out, she was tentatively feeling her way.

“New writers are so sophisticated,” she says. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an agent. I was on my third novel before I started hearing rumours that agents existed!

“When I was growing up we did not study Canadian literature. It was made quite clear that Canadians did not really do much of anything — particularly in the cultural sense.”

Were it not for the writer Alice Munroe — now a friend of Jane’s — she might have felt writing wasn’t possible for her.

“I read her from age 16, and she made it obvious that you could stay at home and write about families. It’s affirming to have her in my life, and to know she is there,” she says.

Although she, too, writes about families, the scope of Jane’s books has always been wideranging. The Night Stages is no exception. What though, was the basic premise?

“I wanted to write about two brothers who were separated by grief in their childhoods, so that their lives would be very different. One would be living a bourgeoisie life, and the other would live in the mountains. 

"As a culture, I feel we are on the cusp of an absolutely huge shift; we’re at the end of the agricultural era; It’s almost like that point where the hunter gatherers made way for agriculture. Globally it’s gigantic and seismic,” she says.

Jane knew the artist Kenneth Lochhead — who was a contemporary of her husband’s. And writing a fictitious account of parts of his life — though they were based on things she knew about him, worried her somewhat.

“I knew I was taking a risk,” she says. “But when I was inventing those stories about him attending art school, and afterwards travelling through Europe, inventing people he ran into and was attracted to, I felt as if he was my companion — a spiritual guide in attempting to make this work of art. As the book progressed I felt he was at my elbow, part of the team,” she says.

The late Michael Kirby, a poet, published in Irish by Lilliput Press makes his way into the book too. And the wartime experiences of Tamara, were based on the real life of aviator Vi Milstead Warren — Canada’s first bush pilot who was a relative of Jane’s.

“She couldn’t exist without flying and flew for the last time at 84. The book was a bit of a memorial to her, and to Kirby and Lochhead. I wanted to get their names down, before they disappear,” she says.

Jane loved researching the Rás.

“I knew I was onto something when I realised it was an endurance test that offered rewards beyond exhaustion. There were people riding with broken collarbones — the excitement was immense.

“The Rás was was done in stages, almost like the stations of the cross,” she says. “The process is like writing a novel and like painting a mural; that too is like taking a journey,” she says.

An institutive writer, a book generally teaches the author something.

“In the midst of this one I realised what I was always trying to do is quite simple. I’ve been trying to make literary art. I’m very interested in language, and by the time I came to write this book, I was no longer apologising for it,” she says.

Jane’s daughter Emily, a former journalist now a folklorist, has recently written a factual book. Would she write fiction?

“Emily says she’s more interested in real life. I guess because she has a mother whose stories were not dependably true.


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