Away by Jane Urquhart

Away by
Trade Paperback, 356 pages
Rating: 10/10


In 1842 Ireland, a young woman named Mary falls under the spell of a beautiful sailor who washes ashore after a shipwreck, but when they're discovered together on the shore in the morning, he is dead and she is said to be 'away' - her spirit replaced with something not entirely of this world. The story of Mary's descendants is remembered by her great-granddaughter when she is an old woman - the potato famine that drove her family to come to Canada, the wilderness they faced largely alone, their travels to a larger town, a desperate race to a flooded Montreal. Away is both a family saga and an immigrant story, the tale of a family arriving in Canada and their struggle to hold on to part of their Irish identity.

Reason for Reading

I'm reading the Canada Reads nominees, and Away is this week's choice in the Twitter Book Club.
Author Charlotte Gray will be defending Away, the pick for the Ontario division.

Why you should read this book

The skill of Urquhart in Away is phenomenal as she blends poetry, mythology, and hard realism into an engrossing family saga. While the characters lead very real and often very hard lives, they are also infused with the sense that they are living within a myth of their own creation. Much of that feeling comes from Urquhart's gift for turning a poetic sentence without romanticizing poverty, largely by creating a sense of place. The part of the story set in Ireland reflects the hard, barren, desolate land that is always looking out to the open sea, mirroring seemingly timeless Irish mythologies. The story that is set in Canada is young, overwhelming and eager despite the claustrophobia of an untamed land of forests. The language of the story changes along with the characters, adapting as they do to their new homes. The story twists in unexpected ways, keeping things interesting but allowing the characters and writing to shine.

Why you should avoid this book

I probably already scared off the people who wouldn't be interested in this book when I used the words 'poetry' and 'poetic' in the paragraph above, but I do mean that in the sense of clearly portraying a vivid picture to the reader's mind, not that it's a heavy and florid writing style. I'm also fairly certain this book haunts some Canadian high schoolers (current and former) who were forced to poke and dig out every literary meaning of every rock and every bird, but read simply for enjoyment, this type of CanLit always has its audience (and awards).

Opening Paragraph

The women of this family leaned toward extremes.
All winter they yearned for long, long nights and short precise days; in the summer the sun in the sky for eighteen hours, then a multitude of stars.

Fabulous quotes

There was great sorrow in the song and great joy, also, that the privilege of sorrow had not yet been cast from the people who sang it. The land they stood on had heard songs such as this before and it would hear them again, for it was the music that could not be starved out of it. The women knew that their bones would sing in the earth after their flesh had gone, and the men, who now joined them, knew that the song would make its way through the coming generations.
'The lake,' his mother asked, 'does it have a name?'
The cabin was dark and outside the night was very still. Somewhere in the forest an owl asked a persistent question; a familiar sound, now, to the child who knew that no one - nothing - answered.
'Brian,' Mary asked again, her words thickening with the suggestion of sleep, 'what is the lake called?'
'Moira,' he said. 'It's Moira Lake.'
After this, the silence in the cabin was so prolonged that Liam assumed his parents had gone to sleep, and he closed his eyes and turned on his side towards the wall.

Also by

The Whirlpool; Changing Heaven; The Underpainter; The Stone Carvers; A Map of Glass; Sanctuary Line; I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace; False Shuffles; The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan; Some Other Garden

Fun Tidbit

Away won Ontario's Trillium Award in 1994.

Would I read more by ?

Definitely. I have The Whirlpool kicking around my shelves. I read The Underpainter and The Stone Carvers when I was younger, but wouldn't rule out re-reads.

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