Set in Ontario, Canada, Jane Urquhart’s latest novel is both contemporary and historical, though the rather disturbing prologue doesn’t make it clear in which period she is starting. Then we meet Jerome, a young photographer/artist living on Timber Island in Lake Ontario while working on a new project until a grisly discovery drives him from the island.
A year later he encounters Sylvia, an unusual woman who has sought him out to ask about the corpse he found. Their meeting at first is tentative, but soon they bond in their quest to know more about the man whose life ended so hideously on the icy lake. Sylvia lends Jerome her late lover’s notebooks, which tell the story of Timber Island and the life of his ancestors.
The reader then travels back in time to early 19th century rural Ontario and the busy timber trade. Andrew’s great-great grandfather built a booming business, but in many ways neglected his children and it’s their lives that touch us the most. The story then returns to the present and resumes its exploration of Sylvia and Jerome, bringing it to its conclusion.
Ms. Urquhart’s simple yet elegant style paints vivid pictures in the reader’s mind, bringing both her characters and their settings alive. The protagonists also impress, with their unique traits and appealing personas.
What gave me trouble was the feeling this was two books crammed into one. Sylvia’s story was most interesting, yet its conclusion left me feeling cheated, especially one twist that’s never fully explained. The historical storyline also feels rushed towards the end.
None of this is to say the book isn’t worth reading. Ms. Urquhart has fashioned engrossing tales of love, loss and memory, ones that resonate. I only wish I could have read them as separate novels.
© Teresa Eckford, 2006
This review first appeared in the August 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review