Book Review: Sanctuary Line

Barbara Korbal
3 min read
Memory is a Fickle Companion
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Great books are like wonderful vacations—you want to go back to the places you enjoyed and examine the things you missed. Indeed, Jane Urquhart’s Sanctuary Line is a book worthy of several trips to experience everything. Urquhart’s exquisite use of detail sets the literary landscape for the engaging mysteries found in the “ancestral geography” of the Butler clan.

The memories of the contemplative narrator Liz Crane, a 40-year-old entomologist, form the basis of a richly woven story of several generations. Returning to the family fruit orchard on Lake Erie to gather data on the migration patterns of monarch butterflies, Liz ruminates on the summers she spent on the farm with her close-knit extended family.

The reader enters this story as Liz is attempting to make sense of several painful situations. She dwells on her cousin Mandy Butler, a soldier killed the year before in Afghanistan. And with adult eyes and childhood memories to guide her, she explores the life of her Uncle Stanley Butler, who disappeared forever one life-changing summer. The memory of her teenage romance with Teo, a Mexican fruit picker in the family’s orchard, haunts her return to the farm as she attempts to make sense of her first and only romance. Deciding that memory is a fickle companion, Liz is forced to rely on it to make sense of her family’s history: “I now believe that memory is rarely a friend to anyone,” she says. These interconnected stories told through Liz’s memory do not have neat or tidy conclusions, but end with myriad surprises.

As Urquhart’s characters demonstrate, the reality of an individual’s life is most often “a spectacular series of wrecks.” Alone at the farm, Liz links the fragile existence of the monarch butterflies to her family members who, “exhausted by the effort of crossing the lake, are drawn down from the sky and into the waves.”

Some readers will experience the slow build of this narrative as tedious due to the exacting detail Urquhart relies on to frame her ideas. But others will want to return to this novel several times, drawn into this story by the age-old question of why humans do what they do. The Canadian Urquhart is a writer of international stature, and
Sanctuary Line is her seventh prize-winning novel. Posing more questions than it answers, this novel is well worth the visit.
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