Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Reader's Diary #941- Jane Urquhart: Away

As I wrote last week, I began reading all 5 of this year's Canada Reads contenders all at the same time. I'd read 25 pages in one, pick up another, and so on. But when the cycle came back again to Jane Urquhart's Away, I wasn't particularly thrilled. I think, in hindsight, that I wasn't quite grasping just what in the heck was going on. The other 4 contenders are grounded in reality, whereas Urquhart's is... different.

However, before long I realized that the story of Away borrows from folklore and blurs the boundaries between fantasy and reality. I started to admire the ambition and found myself getting in to the story. Moving from Ireland, just prior to the potato famine, to the pre-Confederation days of Ontario, and into the present days, moving down the generations as it goes, Away is sweeping in scope, if lacking in a singular plot. It stood out from the other Canada Reads books, because of its style and ambition, but it was a comparison to another book that caused me the most problems: Michael Crummey's Galore.

Galore also borrowed from folklore and blurred the boundaries between fantasy and reality. It was also ambitious. It was also sweeping in scope. Unfortunately for Away, Galore was also superior. And as I've read Galore, all I could focus on was how good Away could have been.

It seems that every review of Away that I've read praises Urquhart's "lyrical" writing. Another way of saying this is purple prose, and Away is downright violet. Purple prose: noun Prose that is to elaborate or ornate. To move from the fantastical world, the supernatural and superstition of folklore, Urquhart really needed to balance it with harsh, succinct, and crisp reality. Her purple prose— or lyricism if you're still going to call it that— fit the former. But her forays into the real world were not real enough. Every character seemed to think as a poet and it grew tiresome.

In truth, the white house nearly blinded the six-year-old boy. Although he had been in the new country for almost three months, it was, nevertheless, the first particle of the new strangeness that he had allowed his gaze to rest upon. It shone in the Great Lake harbour like a lamp, brighter than the sun that lit it. As the lakeboat in which they rode moved through the waves towards shore, the house appeared to breathe heavily and draw itself up like something alive. The boy was afraid of it and enchanted by it and convinced that light was pouring out of, not into, its windows. In its rooms, he imagined there would be music like Mass being sung, but louder. 

Sure it's descriptive, perhaps even beautifully so, and sure kids have great imaginations. But come on. He's six. This doesn't ring true at all and it's like this throughout the entire book, regardless of what character is currently being highlighted. In a New York Times article titled "In Defense of Purple Prose," Paul Kent writes, "A writer who can't do purple is missing a trick. A writer who does purple all the time ought to have more tricks." If Urquhart has more tricks, she didn't reveal them in Away.

Again, I admire the ambition and grant that the writing is not run-of-the-mill, but I've seen this done better. But lucky for Away, Galore is not a contender this year, so who knows how it'll fare in the Canada Reads debate.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I prefer smaller stories, with a finer focus. Sweeping tales tend to exhaust me, so I doubt I would be voting for Away.

Loni said...

I've been thinking that I should read Jane Urquhart, but maybe not Away.

Jules said...

Away was my second favourite this year. But it's not Urquhart's best. I never knew that Galore has similar style as this book. I'm not convinced I'll like it. Perhaps the writing - but I've always been unsure about that one.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Depends on the sweeping tale, for me. I enjoyed War and Peace and Les Miserables (somewhat)-- doesn't get more sweeping than those. Or Voltaire's Candide. It's short but sweeping and I loved that one.

Loni: I want to try something else by her before I make up my mind entirely. I've wanted to read the Stone Carvers for some time.

Jules: I think Away did fantasy well, but not realism. Galore does a great job with both.