Jane Urquhart’s The Night Stages is one of the most beautiful and deep novels I have read this year. Along with
The Goldfinch (by Donna Tartt), it stands as my first or second choice of long fiction I’ve read in the last 12 months. The language is beautiful; the subject is fresh; the characters are, for the most part, sympathetic; the feel of the characters’ actions and thought patterns is realistic. As is true of many contemporary novels, each chapter is told from a new point of view, but this is not confusing as the author easily makes it obvious whom is speaking.
The major characters in The Night Stages, set in the ‘40s and ‘50s in Ireland and Canada, are these: Tam, a widowed Englishwoman living in Ireland who leaves her long-term lover, Niall, a married Irish meteorologist. The relationship, while occasionally passionate, is not stable. Niall has a younger brother, Kiernan, who suffered an unpleasant childhood but discovers the joys of bicycling long and fast. He finds he loves to live in nature with no familial ties, and he eventually disappears. “In England or maybe America, for a long time now. He just vanished in the night. Working, or so they say, on building sites or perhaps the motorways,” Niall tells Tam. The older brother feels responsible. After learning this, Tam notices, “It is even darker outside the window now, as if the fog is trying to cancel the struggling light.”
Finally, there is a fictionalized Kenneth Lochhead, the disillusioned (actual) British artist who wins the commission to paint a large mural at the Gander (Newfoundland, Canada) Airport. After leaving Niall, Tam has an unexpected layover at this airport: “As the plane lowers more purposefully, making its final approach into Gander, Newfoundland, the pine forest approaches. Sea, rock, then acres and acres of forest…This is the geography of Purgatory and the aircraft is about to touch down.”
The novel consists of four stories (some critics believe three) within stories: The story of the breakup of the tenuous, intense romance between Tam and Niall; the story of Niall’s years-long search for his lost brother; Kiernan’s growing passion for riding bicycles and his entrance into the annual eight-day international race in Ireland, the Ras; and Lochhead’s commission and completion of the huge mural for Gander. These four stories wind in and out of each other elegantly. Other important aspects include narratives of mentors and storytellers; the story of a young Irishwoman, Susan, who influences several primary characters; another of Annie, a neighbor lady who primarily raises Kiernan; and many historical bits of Irish folklore.
Several leitmotifs run through this novel: comings and goings, the notion of home--what, where, with whom; airplanes representing speed, passion, freedom. Irreconcilable differences in relationships. In both this novel and in
The Stone Carvers, young men leave oppressive homes in search of what they may call home--in both cases, involving almost no responsibility for other humans but made up of freedom of motion, travel, closeness to nature, and hard work.
Yes, as most critics agree, Jane Urquhart, originally a poet, can devise melancholy narratives, but not in a sobbing at full throttle sort of way. Life is often melancholy, after all. And the details of the landscape of rural, poverty-stricken Ireland in the ‘40s and ‘50s and the details of a bicycle race, neither of which initially interested me especially, brought me right into caring a great deal about both.
I did not want to finish this novel: I knew the ending would be melancholy.
Not all is tied nicely together, and I did not want to leave the characters or the setting. I cared what happened to each of them. Although
The Stone Carvers is also an excellent work, I found this latest novel more complex and gripping. The author has developed a more sophisticated voice. Why, as is often true, have so few of us south of Canada not heard more about her? In my estimation, she is of similar stature in terms of skill and talent as other contemporary Canadian writers Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Alice Munroe.
This is Urquhart’s ninth novel. She spends most of her life in Ontario, Canada (and a small time in Ireland) and has received, among others, a French prize, the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, and Canada’s Governor General’s Award.