Islands and beaches play prominent roles in Jane Urquhart's novels, but readers won't find any bikinis or blooming hibiscuses. The Canadian writer isn't interested in tropical paradises. Her shores are northern - places where the extreme conditions serve as a stark backdrop to unfolding epics.
Her sixth novel, A Map of Glass, is no exception. It opens during a snowstorm on an abandoned island, where a septuagenarian man wanders to his death. His name was Andrew Woodman, and he was a "historical geographer" and scion of the family that once prospered on Timber Island. His body is found by Jerome, a young conceptual artist - there's usually at least one artist in Urquhart's novels - who'd come to the island to chronicle changes made by winter.
A year later, Andrew's longtime lover, Sylvia, shows up at Jerome's door with Andrew's journals. "The day that you found Andrew you became ... the end of the story," Sylvia explains to Jerome, who would really prefer not to think about his grim discovery. "You were, in a way, the last thing he told me."
Sylvia, who hates change, has lived a prisoner to a mysterious "condition," which is never named. She can catalog every item in her family home, and has more intense relationships with china horses than her husband, a well-meaning doctor who agreed to take her off her weary parents' hands. Andrew and a blind friend, for whom Sylvia makes tactile maps, are the only ones who have ever treated her like a whole person.
The first third of the novel is essentially an overly long setup to get down to the business of reading Andrew's journals. While Sylvia and Jerome, who (of course) is battling his own childhood demons, are likable, this early section is marred by self-conscious dialogue and too many neat parallels. Jerome "is drawn to abandoned scraps," like peeling paint and rust; Sylvia fixates on paint peeling in her hotel room. Sylvia remarks that Jerome's girlfriend's name, Mira, sounds like "mirror." Uh, yeah. It also means "look" in Spanish, but can we get on with it?
This slow windup is a real shame, because readers who give up too soon will miss out on a truly memorable family: the Woodmans, 19th-century artists and businessmen whose greed scars the landscape. As soon as Jerome opens Andrew's journals, the novel kicks into high gear. Fans of "The Underpainter," perhaps Urquhart's best novel, know that she excels at making 100 years ago feel as vibrant as yesterday. (In fact, a problem with "Glass" is that the present feels less urgent than the past.)
The patriarch is Joseph Woodman, a ferocious shipbuilder who left England in a fury after his plan to drain Ireland's bogs was shelved. But the story really belongs to his two children: lame, intelligent Annabelle, who paints only shipwrecks; and Branwell, a fresco artist who wants nothing to do with the family business.
Branwell's wife, Marie, an orphan with a flair for French cookery, and their son, "Badger," complete the family circle. Just for good measure, Urquhart throws in a rival shipbuilder and a Slovakian groom who moonlights as a bear-training, fortune-telling flamenco dancer.
In the present day, all that's left of the Woodmans are two physical landmarks: Timber Island and a hotel buried under the sand - what Andrew calls "a biography of stones." The story of their rise and fall unfolds like an epic, but at the length of a novella. Despite the economy of pages, Urquhart still has room for lovely touches, like the buried hotel and Annabelle's "splinter book," a scrapbook made of used matches and fragments of wood. And for images of decline, it's hard to beat an elderly Joseph, wandering about Timber Island like The Onceler from "The Lorax," wondering why there are no more trees.
The novel's title comes from a work by minimalist artist Robert Smithson, in which he heaped pieces of broken glass at a site where the sun would catch them, creating "Map of Broken Glass." Smithson's interest in maps and entropy is reflected throughout the novel: Both Andrew and Jerome chronicle changes in the natural landscape over time, and Joseph Woodman and Sylvia both turn maps into art. The frailty of material success, and the powerful changes the lust for money can wreak on the land are also woven throughout.
Urquhart also spares a fond thought for vanished occupations. Jerome muses wistfully on life as a "fence-minder," and, when she comes across models for ship's figureheads, even practical Annabelle succumbs to a moment of nostalgia. "It is wonderful, when you think about it, that there were men in Quebec who devoted their lives almost entirely to the carving of mermaids."
It does take quite a bit of time for "A Map of Glass" to get its bearings, but readers who persevere are likely to feel themselves amply rewarded.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.