Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

A Journey Poised to Take: An Evening with Jane Urquhart

Photo credit: Daniel Bezalel Richardsen


There is a black-and-white photograph of Kenneth standing in sunlight beside a prairie railway station. He is loose-limbed and smiling, happy maybe, or at least unconcerned about the journey he seems poised to take. ( The Night Stages , p. 3)


Thus began the evening with host and author Charlotte Gray, and Jane Urquhart, author of bestselling novels Away (1997) and The Stone Carvers (2010). Urquhart, reading from her newest novel, The Night Stages (2015), was composed and collected at the podium in Christ Church Cathedral Ottawa, where the first special event of the spring Writers Fest season unfurled.


Reading with a muted passion, Urquhart introduced her audience to Kenneth Lochhead, one of the central characters of The Night Stages and a fictionalized interpretation of the real-life Canadian artist (1926-2006). This Ottawa boy would grow up to paint a 72-foot-long mural in the “crossroads of the world” – the international airport in Gander, Newfoundland – titled Flight and Its Allegories. In 1958, Urquhart later explained, this airport was the hub for all airplane flights between Europe and North America for the very practical reason of refuelling. Lochhead’s colourful mural would have greeted all the weary international travellers in transit.


Such is the case for Tamara, the English protagonist of The Night Stages. Tam, having fled the west coast of Ireland for New York City, is grounded in Gander for three days due to fog. With the mural as her companion, she reflects on her past as she waits for the fog to lift in order to seek a new future. She is leaving behind a relationship and a home, in full flight from the wild landscape of County Kerry.


Urquhart shared that she recently sold her own place in Kerry, a milestone that was bittersweet for her. She reminisced nostalgically on her many years spent writing in her little cottage; the first lyrical draft always in longhand. She has a passionate relationship with Ireland – the people, the landscape, and the poetry interwoven in every aspect of life and integral to understanding and appreciating the island’s rugged beauty. Ireland, she explained, “is a part of the world where people really, really care about family.”


Her love for Ireland is apparent in a number of her novels, including The Night Stages. In fact, the Irish landscape becomes itself like a character, telling its own story and influencing those who dwell within it. The second passage that Urquhart chose to read aloud illustrated this, the “marvellous, heartbreaking, toughness of the Kerry landscape.” In this passage, Kieran, the third interwoven story of the novel, has gone up into the mountains. There, along with two of three remaining mountain men, he observes “the hardness of this life, and then the beauty.”[1]  


The rugged beauty of Ireland, however, does not prevent people from leaving it. Departure is an underlying current throughout both the novel and evening at Christ Church. The Gander airport, its mural (the inspiration for the novel), Tam’s career as a pilot, Tam fleeing from Kerry, Kieran’s own story of disappearance, and the landscape slowly being depopulated – all these share in common the idea of changing place, departing for elsewhere. Urquhart’s own departure from Ireland came during the writing of this novel. This novel, she acknowledged, is a memorial of sorts. She wanted to honour the people she left behind and mourn the loss caused by leaving.


This evening with Urquhart revealed the mind behind the minds of her stories. The insights she gave into her muses for the novel and the real people who inspired several of the characters showed a woman who has few qualms about taking liberties with reality and an artist who knows herself and yet conquers anyways. Michael Kirby, a deeply respected neighbour of Urquhart’s in Kerry, for example, was also Kieran’s bicycle coach in the novel. In truth, he was a fisherman and local poet, but she took care to ensure that he held his genuine character. And in spite of a self-proclaimed “despise for sport”, she understood from near beginning that a bicycle race, the An Post Rás, (“the Irish Tour-de-France”) would play a significant role in revealing the landscape and toxic relationship between two brothers.


Urquhart may have departed from Ireland but showed this evening that she has not departed from herself. She shared that when she was writing her first novel back in the 1980s, she truly believed she was writing a prose poem. She has remained true to her lyrical cadence in her eighth story today. She still sculpts words into art and captures passion in poetic melody in order to share with her readers the significance of beauty remaining long after a leaving has taken place. “Writing,” she said when pondering the changes in her life, “is a way of making that which is fragile and fleeting permanent.”

[1] Urquhart, The Night Stages (McClelland & Stewart, Random House of Canada: Toronto, 2015): 159