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While the world was still reeling from the staggering losses incurred in the First World War, a little-known Canadian sculptor was raising a colossal monument in France, where more than sixty-six thousand of his countrymen had fought and died. The Vimy Ridge Memorial still stands as a stark reminder of the Canadians who gave their lives in France—and as a testament to the vision and single-minded obsession of its now-forgotten architect, Walter Allward.
It is against the backdrop of this incredible achievement that Jane Urquhart sets her new novel. At the center of the story is Klara Becker, the granddaughter of a master woodcarver, who spends her childhood in a German-settled community in southwestern Ontario in the years leading up to the Great War. It is a childhood punctuated by tremendous losses: her mother dies of cancer when she is a teenager; her older brother, in love with wandering, eventually leaves the family; and her brief but passionate love affair with Eamon O’Sullivan is cut short when he volunteers for action and never returns. But Klara’s inherited gift for carving eventually reunites her with her brother and gives her purpose as she works on the memorial that will make her whole again.
The Underpainter is a novel of interwoven lives in which the world of art collides with the realm of human emotion. It is the story of Austin Fraser, an American painter now in his later years, who is haunted by memories of those whose lives most deeply touched his own, including a young Canadian soldier and china painter and the beautiful model who becomes Austin’s mistress. Spanning decades, the setting moves from upstate New York to the northern shores of two Great Lakes; from France in World War One to New York City in the ’20s and ’30s.
Esther O’Malley Robertson gazes out at Lake Ontario from her home for perhaps the last time. This house, highly charged with memories and history, is part of a landscape that is now being swallowed by industry. The story of her family’s past has its beginnings in the 1840s off the northern coast of Ireland, where a young woman embraced a semiconscious sailor who had washed in with the tide, and later, with her husband and young son, fled the famine for Canada.
Jane Urquhart imbues the past with a shimmering clarity as she takes us from the harsh Irish coast to the quarantine stations at Grosse Isle and the barely hospitable land of the Canadian Shield; from the flourishing town of Port Hope to the flooded streets of Montreal; from Ottawa to a large-windowed house at the edge of a Great Lake. The characters who inhabit the world of this novel include Liam O’Malley, a down-to-earth, first-generation Irish-Canadian farmer; his sister, Eileen, whose passionate…[more]