Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Sanctuary Line, by Jane Urquhart, explores how families are shaped by stories. Set on an old farmstead on the shores of Lake Erie, the novel finds Liz Crane living in the house alone, remembering pieces from her earlier life. The orchards that have belonged to her family for generations are no longer producing, and everyone else has moved away. Her uncle disappeared years ago. Her cousin, Mandy, has recently been killed fighting in Afghanistan, and Liz is still grieving her death.
While living at the old farmhouse, Liz is studying the migrations of the Monarch butterfly. The present story is interwoven with past memories of when Liz was a child, of the summers she spent with her cousins in the orchards and by the lake. Her memories of childhood are further mixed with stories that her uncle used to tell them as kids; stories about the old great-greats, about ancestors in Ireland, and those who first settled on the shores of the great lake, who built the farmhouse and planted the orchards. She describes hearing these stories over and over again as a kid with her cousins, about how these tales often measured their time together. These stories ultimately became a part of Liz’s identity.
Sanctuary Line is a quiet book, and remarkable in its subtleties. It’s the kind of novel that may be easy to understate but is filled with a richness of complexities. The layering of story upon story creates a vivid world, both physically and emotionally, within which Liz exists. It examines how a person is shaped by the stories they internalize. It emphasizes how the act of telling and hearing a story can be as important as the details themselves.
Since much of the book is filled with stories about the past, the present does move rather slowly; however, this gives the novel space to explore how the past has shaped Liz’s current reality. In addition, the relaxed pace allows for connections between situations: Liz’s own unspoken tragedy, which lurks in the background, is often mirrored through the stories of her ancestors’ suffering.
In this book, family lore is far greater than just stories that are repeated: it has the power to relate the past to the present, and facilitate an understanding of both. At its core, Sanctuary Line does a wonderful job of exploring how we use stories to define ourselves. It looks at the ways in which family history is constructed through shared memory, and how the present is understood by peering through the lens of the past. By interweaving these stories, Sanctuary Line illuminates how familial and personal identity is ultimately created.
Sanctuary Line is published by McClelland & Stewart.