Jane Urquhart’s The Whirlpool (1986)
McClelland & Stewart, 1997

In an early edition of Jane Urquhart’s debut novel, she credits a 1915 novel for having inspired her story: Julia E. Cruikshank’s Whirlpool Heights: The Dream-House on the Niagara River.

It’s difficult to find a copy of Whirlpool Heights but, because I have a thing for Niagara Falls, I trekked down to the Toronto Reference Library and requested their copy from the stacks and sat down and read it straight-through. (I wanted to break the rules and snap a picture of it: so charming. But I am a scaredy cat.)

“On the 18th of December, 1904, E. gave me the deed of a piece of land overlooking the Whirlpool on the Canadian side of Niagara River for a birthday present. I believe he only paid for one acre, but as it is surrounded by deep, inaccessible ravines, I felt as if I owned the earth.”

The relationship between Cruikshank’s novel and Jane Urquhart’s The Whirlpool is a closer one that I’d’ve guessed. And, because Niagara Falls holds a fascination for me, I can understand why the author was so intrigued by the idea of this woman and her piece of land.

Both narrators (that of Cruikshank’s novel and that of Urquhart’s) find a peculiar strength and a wonder in the landscape, and the whirlpool is significant at a literal and figurative level. The husbands are distant physically and emotionally. The women make tea on a tripod in the bush and read next to the fire. They stare at their surroundings, each wanting to be further absorbed to the landscape and, simultaneously, wanting to be elsewhere and otherwise. They grapple with the violence connected to the area (both in the historical events of Lundy’s Lane, for instance, and in the contemporary deaths related to accidental drowning and those connected to daredevil acts).

Where do they diverge? Julia E. Cruikshank’s novel is the sort of novel you would pack to take on a holiday to Niagara and you could pick it up and pick it down and still follow the (admittedly thin) plot without difficulty. Jane Urquhart’s novel is a literary work of fiction with a degree of intricacy, with some long ruminative passages, permeated with longing.

Jane Urquhart’s The Whirlpool also adds Robert Browning and a widow left to run a funeral parlour. And it adds a poet and a riverman, who can feel when the river has claimed a body. Even in the middle of the night, he can tell: he just knows.

This character is fascinating indeed (and the poet brings an interesting angle to the tale that Cruikshank told, but to speak much of that would reveal secrets), and each of these additional characters brings another dimension to the tale.

They also each have a relationship with the whirlpool, whether starkly or subtly, and even for a reader who does not connect with the individual characters, it’s possible to appreciate the connection they have to the landscape, which is haunting and beautiful beyond words and has inspired writers across the centuries.

Jane Urquhart’s Away (1993)
Penguin, 1995

Readers know from the start that Away is a love story. But the nature of that love is more complex than one might guess. And being ‘away’ is a more complex concept that one might guess too.

“It was to look at a woman that he went over there. There’s a woman on the island they say is ‘away’.”
“‘Away’…off with the fairies, is she?”
“Not this one,” said Osbert, tying his portfolio. “They say this one has a daemon lover.”

Mary is away. But whether she has a daemon lover? That’s a matter of debate. And even those who begin feeling certain that they know the answer find their opinions shifting.

The magical bits of this story play out alongside the domestic, the uncomplicated, the banal.

“She loved the iron pots she used for cooking and even the troublesome hens that ruined the thatch by nesting in it. She loved the corners and the broom with which she removed the dust that collected where the walls met the floor. The drowsy sameness of each day. The comfort of binding oneself to the maintenance of life.”

From living with the fairies to iron pots and dust in the corners: Away is about the details, but it also encompassing broad overarching themes.

It is a family story of generations of women and their experiences (in Ireland and in Canada as new settlers), and it’s an archetypal tale about loss and love (in a boundless kind of way).

“Who did she belong to then? Do you believe in this spirit?” Liam had risen to his feet to ask this question. “Do you?” he demanded. “Do you believe in this fairy tale?”

This novel has all the ingredients that should have combined into a favourite read for me, but I didn’t love Away as so many readers have loved it.

Are you one of those who loved it? Have you thought you’d found a perfect reading match yourself, only to find that the timing was off somehow?