CHANGING HEAVEN by Jane Urquhart
“The hills beyond the window darken. Approaching night and receding snow. There is no need for Ann to speak, no need, in fact, for her to listen except in the way that one listens to music, allowing it to wash over the ear and the heart. The references to weather catch her attention, like a dragline hook in underwater weeds, pulling and then letting go. She has not need now for the complexities of content, the snares of meaning. Only his man’s voice, the music of it; the pure sound of the words, empty of narrative. The repetitious references to weather tugging and letting go, tugging and letting go . . .”
Review by Roger Brunyate Â (OCT 4, 2010)
A brilliant riff on Emily BrontÃ«’s Wuthering Heights, this highly original novel is as bracing and wild as the weather itself, impossible to pin down, virtually plotless, yet sweeping all before it. Just as one speaks of a novel of ideas, this is a novel of emotions — emotions in their purest form, taking possession like a natural force, and largely divorced from the normal ties of cause and effect. This is not a book for those who demand realism and logic rather than a novel organized by poetic association and contrast. But for those who approach it as the unique vision of a poet who just happens to be writing in prose — wondrous prose — it is something very special indeed.
I have now read all but two of Jane Urquhart’s novels, and know nothing quite like this one from 1990, which barely seems to touch the ground. True, Sanctuary Line, her latest, has also the structure of poetry, revisiting scraps of memory, probing and elucidating, but its basic story is down to earth; indeed that is its essence. The other three that I have read — Away (1993), The Stone Carvers (2001), and A Map of Glass (2005) — tell their stories in a more-or-less linear way, although all show Urquhart’s characteristic delight in juxtaposing different periods, and Away and A Map of Glass especially have traces of the otherworldly elements that are so strong here. All of her later novels are set largely in her native Ontario; although Toronto makes an appearance here (as does Venice), the primary setting is the wild Yorkshire moorland near Haworth, where the BrontÃ« sisters grew up. And even here, her concern is less the heather and crags so much as the clouds scudding over them, driven by a restless wind.
“After four or five days, Ann is obsessed by the wind. It both pleases and perplexes her. It scatters the mail that the postman leaves at the door, dispersing her one link to her past, her real life. […] It rattles at the coal cellar door at night like a vigilante group demanding entrance. It blows into her dreams. When she walks over the moors, the wind causes a knife of pain, straight through her neck just below ear level. It makes all the bracken and bilberry and heather swell and undulate, as if some unknown substance beneath the earth’s surface had just reached boiling point.”
The novel brings together three women from different centuries. One is Emily BrontÃ« herself, who appears as a rather personable ghost. The second is a turn-of-the-century balloonist, Arianna Ether, who performed for her manager and lover Jeremy Jacobs, the “Sindbad of the Skies.” The third is a Canadian, Ann Frear, who has developed her childhood passion for Wuthering Heights into an academic career in English. Shattered by an affair with a colleague named Arthur, an art historian who is living out a similar passion for the darker works of Tintoretto, she takes a sabbatical in Yorkshire to write a book on BrontÃ«’s weather. But these are just the axes around which the elemental opposites of the novel revolve: passion and peace, wildness and domesticity, heath and hearth.
For most of the novel, the more dramatic elements predominate: the wild wind, the barren landscape, Tintoretto’s dark visions lit by flashes of lightning, the unbroken whiteness of the arctic wastes. But, despite what I said about the relative absence of plot, we do begin to care a lot for Ann as a person, and feel for her as she finds a different kind of love from an unexpected source. We know she will never be free of her wild side, but now the question of balance becomes important. Nothing in this novel is as impressive as the way in which Urquhart moves towards that resolution at the end, and the evocative simplicity of her final sentence is heart-stopping.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 7 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||David R. Godine Publisher; 1ST edition (February 1993)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||Not Yet|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Jane Urquhart|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:|
- The Whirlpool (1986)
- Storm Glass: Stories (1987)
- Changing Heaven (1990)
- Away (1993)
- The Underpainter (1997)
- The Stone Carvers (2001)
- A Map of Glass (2005)
- Sanctuary Line (October 2010)