Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line
McClelland & Stewart, 2010

Liz Crane is an entomologist; she studies insects. Specifically butterflies – monarchs. But, more generally, she takes time to examine what others frequently overlook. As a narrator, therefore, her perspective will not be to every reader’s taste.

She has also suffered a loss recently; her cousin, Mandy, has been killed overseas in Afghanistan in conflict. And this brings Liz back to other losses in her life. Even each page itself seems to hold loss in the generous margins that surround the spare-styled text.

So the reader can’t help but feel a little at sea. Which is appropriate. One of the observations that Liz makes is that it’s easier to find yourself on a map when you are standing at the edge of a lake than it is to find yourself on a particular street in a city which is only represented by a dot on that map.

That’s true of where Liz is standing anyhow. She is now the sole occupant of the family farm  — though she shares it with many ghosts it seems – which is situated on a sandy peninsula which juts out into Lake Erie, a key destination for the migrating monarch butterflies she studies.

Her mother has recently moved out of it to The Golden Field, where she, too, is “staring out the window…trying to puzzle out the riddle of all that was lost”. Against her lake, Liz stands out like her mother’s silhouette is framed by the window.

Liz does a lot of staring, a lot of puzzling, and finally comes to the conclusion that it would be better to be her aunt, “who was officially divorced from memory before her death”, a mad woman.

And yet something keeps pulling her back, back to this landscape, back to her memories.

It’s something she can’t explain, something that appears as mystifying as the force which guides the monarchs back to their familiar route, a route that only butterflies four generations ago have actually navigated. And, yet, somehow the map is known by those who have never travelled it.

Tales of the Butler ancestors – both those told about the Butlers in Ireland and early Canadian settlers – echo in the text like the “memories” of the monarch butterflies.

Exchanges that are more concrete – specific conversations and encounters – prove to be as unsatisfying and puzzling as true mysteries.

Science falls short. Memories offer no comfort. But Sanctuary Line – though a quiet, reflective novel – is not a discouraging tale. In those spaces around the text, there is room for the reader to settle into a sort of comfort.

It recalls the importance of the telling, of the kind of comfort – sanctuary, even – that one character finds in books, in stories, in rereading “until it becomes possible to identify certain feelings simply by seeing the shape a remembered paragraph made on a page”.