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“She is clearly a courageous stylist, with a unique vision.”
— Timothy Findley
“[Her] language is vivid enough to take your breath away.”
— Boston Globe
"The most compelling depiction of the sense of place in human lives."
— Alice Munro
"Hypnotic... [an] elegant and meditative novel about love, relationships, and the meaning of home."
— People magazine
"Tender, romantic and surprising.... An epic of love and loss with an intrigung twist."
— Sunday Times
"Urquhart has a great gift for the historical novel, for the melding of ideas, events and individuals into a significant whole.... Highly compelling and illuminating...."
— Claire Messud, Globe and Mail
In a small town thirty miles down the lakeshore, a woman woke early. There was no sound coming from the street below. Darkness was still pressed against her bedroom windows.
Her husband was sleeping and did not stir as she slid from the bed, crossed the room, and walked down the hall to the bathroom where she had laid out her clothes the night before: the dark wool suit and grey silk shirt, the string of small pearls, the black tights, white underwear, and conventional cream-coloured slip, the sombre costume that she believed would ensure that no one would look at her, or look at her for very long. She took no special precautions as she washed and dressed, running the taps and opening the drawers as she would have on any other morning. Malcolm had been out on a night call and had not returned until 3 a.m. He would be sleeping deeply and would not waken for at least two more hours. By then she would be on the train, part of the journey completed.
She stood for some time in front of the open medicine cabinet in the bathroom, gazing at the plastic containers that held her various pills. Then she closed the door and stared at her own face in the mirror. Her fair hair, some of it grey now, was pulled back, and her face, she was relieved to see, was composed, her grey eyes were clear. She could not say whether it was an attractive face that looked back at her. Someone had once told her she was lovely and not, in some ways, that long ago, but she knew that her features, her expression had altered since.
The previous morning, after Malcolm had left for the clinic, she had filled an old suitcase with stockings, one blue skirt and cardigan, underwear, a few cosmetics, two well-used green leather notebooks, a plastic bag containing squares of felt, scraps of fabric and wool, one antique album, and a worn hardcover book. Then she had lifted the bag from the bed where she had packed it and had placed it in the unused cupboard of the spare room. The interior of the case was pink and had elasticized compartments under the satin-lined lid where, at one time or another, some long-dead woman must have kept hairbrushes and clothes brushes, and perhaps a bottle filled with liquid detergent for washing silk stockings. That woman may very well have been her own mother, but she couldn't be certain because as far as she knew her mother had never been a traveller. The people who lived in this rural County stayed home. Year after year, generation after generation. The geography of the County discouraged travel; trains no longer visited any of the pleasant towns of the peninsula where she had lived her entire life. She would have to drive for almost an hour to reach Belleville, the larger mainland town where she would catch the train that would take her to the city. The word city had hissed in her mind all week long, first as an idea, then as a possibility, and, finally, now as a certain destination.
Excerpted from A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1. Jane Urquhart doesn’t title individual chapters, instead she divides her novel into three large sections: “The Revelations”; “The Bog Commissioners”; “A Map of Glass”. Look at each of these sections and discuss why it is given that particular title. The name of the second section, “The Bog Commissioners,” is at first mysterious because Joseph Woodman only stayed in Ireland as a bog commissioner for less than half a year. But something of the mentality or attitude he demonstrates in Ireland travels with him to Canada, and it informs other characters too. What is that attitude, and how does it play out in the novel? When discussing the name of the last section, “A Map of Glass,” also consider why Urquhart chose that as the title of the book.
2. The epigraph of the novel tells us that the “logical, two dimensional picture” provided by a diagram, plan, or map “rarely looks like the thing it stands for.” Which characters make maps or diagrams? What function do they serve? How do they relate to some of the book’s central concerns? What makes a “true” map?
3. In the short preface [pp. 1-5], where we meet Andrew walking in the snow as an older man, he ruminates on many of the novel’s important themes and ends by saying, “I have lost everything.” Now that you’ve finished the novel, re-read the preface and identify the issues, and even the words, that will dominate and unify the book.
4. Renaissance poets and playwrights were obsessed with what they called Mutability, or change. So is Jane Urquhart, who broods in most of her novels over a lost, pristine landscape and the smaller, more human settlements of the nineteeth century. Change is the central theme in A Map of Glass, affecting everything from forests and shorelines to human memory. List some of the irrevocable changes detailed in the book. What are some of the natural symbols Urquhart uses to underscore this theme? What is the relationship in the book between human arrogance and change? What are some of the ways characters try to arrest change, or record what is passing? Is change ever seen as good in the novel?
5. Sylvia is the character who most thoroughly resists change. What are some of the methods she devises to keep her world as stable as she can manage? Do you feel Urquhart is critical of Sylvia’s strategies and eccentricities, seeing them as symptomatic of illness, or to some extent does she approve of them?
6. One of Sylvia’s mementoes of Andrew is his book, The Relations of History and Geography. How do history and geography interact in A Map of Glass?
7. Malcolm thinks of Sylvia largely, if not primarily, as a patient, although the exact nature of her problem is never identified. How would you write Sylvia’s case history?
8. The idea of “the elusive man” figures prominently in all of Jane Urquhart’s novels. The beloved is somehow emotionally or physically unavailable, whether it is because he dies, he’s married, he has a vocation or mission more compelling than the relationship, or he’s ambivalent in some other way. How do Andrew and Jerome fit into this recurring theme?
9. With the exception of A Map of Glass and her earlier novel Changing Heaven, Jane Urquhart has not written about the late-twentieth-century or early-twenty-first-century world. How does the use of two time frames, nineteenth century and contemporary, enrich her themes in A Map of Glass? Do you discern any differences in the two time frames? For example, in terms of the psychological reality, the use of dialogue, the narrative voice? Do you have a preference for the contemporary or nineteenth-century sections?
10. Sylvia asks her friend Julia, “What is the difference, really, between touch and collision?” [p. 70]. Characters in A Map of Glass are powerfully affected by touch. Most obviously, Sylvia fears being touched. How do the two men in her life react to that? Who else reacts strongly to touch?
11. Annabelle thinks she and Marie are two sides of a complete self. How so?
12. Several characters in A Map of Glass are visual artists, whether they know it or not — Annabelle, Bran, Jerome, Mira, and Joseph Woodman. When Sylvia tells Jerome about the tactile maps she makes for her blind friend Julia, he tells her that she, too, is making art. Some art fixes something real or imagined into permanence or semi-permanence; other art, like Mira’s performance work, is transitory. Discuss the different kinds of art and artists in the book. How do they echo or illuminate some of the novel’s concerns.
13. What role does money play in this novel?
14. In many ways, Mira is one of the novel’s most “adjusted” characters. Discuss some of the ways Mira’s life — personal and professional — is a success, and how this sheds light on some of the other characters’ lives. Do you like her? How does her art of making “swaddles” reflect her personality?
15. After he finishes reading Andrew’s journals, Jerome remarks that “maybe landscape — place — makes people more knowable. Or it did, in the past” [p. 336]. How do various characters in the novel exemplify this idea? In A Map of Glass, landscape or a strong sense of place can be an imprisoning force; with other characters, it is a source of safety or freedom. Discuss the main characters’ reaction to their present or remembered landscape.
16. Malcolm is described as having made Sylvia “in her natural habitat” — the house and the County in which she has always lived — his life’s work. Why does he do that? How successful is his life’s work? Do you find him a sympathetic character?
17. In the same period that he discovers the body of Andrew, which ultimately leads to his relationship with Sylvia, Jerome befriends and domesticates the cat Swimmer. Are there resemblances between Sylvia and Swimmer?
18. One of the interesting questions that can be asked about a character is: Does he or she learn something significant in the course of the novel, or otherwise evolve? Which characters in A Map of Glass are different at the end of the novel, and how? Which ones remain unchanged?
19. Although one of the points of this novel is, as Sylvia tells Jerome, that “all life is an exercise in forgetting” [p. 367], stories are one way to keep the past alive. Discuss some of the stories remembered, recorded, read, and told in the book, and the ways in which they echo or deepen the story. How does the memory of a particular story and its reader bring both joy and sorrow to Jerome at the end of the novel?
Posted May 25, 2006
This book left me starving for more. What I loved about it so much was how 2 people from two different generations could have such similar background in art and the interest they pursued in the Canadian landscape. I also liked the link that was made between Sylvia's map making for Julia and Annabelle's facination with the old maps she found made by her father. I wish there was a sequel about the Ghost and Branwell bringing up Andrew's father in the Canadian country side. I cannot wait to here this on CD.
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