In her eighth novel, The Night Stages, Jane Urquhart revisits and elaborates themes familiar to readers from such earlier works as The Underpainter and The Stone Carvers. Anchored by the story of the creation of a monumental work of art, as well as the aesthetic and sentimental apprenticeship of the artist, her new novel explores the vicissitudes of familial and romantic love and the struggle to heal from its disappointments. The additional theme of a sustained and complex sibling rivalry makes The Night Stages equal to The Underpainter, which justly won the Governor General’s Award in 1997.
In the early 1960s, 40-something Tamara Edgeworth, a British transplant to Ireland, finds herself grounded by fog for three days in Gander International Airport while en route to an uncertain future in New York City. This stalled condition illuminates her own emotional paralysis as the enthralled lover of Niall Riordan, a married man with whom she has been entangled for many years. Tam had been a trailblazer during World War Two, flying, landing and hiding crucial military aircraft (the character was inspired by the remarkable Canadian female aviator Vi Milstead Warren, who earned her pilot’s licence in 1939). Yet she now lives a shadow life, sketching planes instead of piloting them, while waiting for Niall’s visit, “(becoming), in every possible way, a passenger.”
As she endures her weather-imposed passivity Tam studies the mural that dominates the passenger lounge, Flight and its Allegories, by Kenneth Lochhead, a seminal Canadian artist known as one fifth of the Regina Five, finding figures and motifs that stir thoughts about her life and its impasses.
Like a striking number of characters in Urquhart’s work, Tam has suffered from chronically inadequate parenting. Even though Urquhart’s characters do not suffer violent abuse for the most part, they are often victims of a different kind of cruelty. Parental shortcomings in her fiction tend in the direction of childishness, preoccupation, obtuseness, neglect and other insensitivities stemming from severely limited characters.
For the characters in this novel, substitute parents fill the void. In the case of Tamara Edgeworth, her nanny compensated for parents who were otherwise engaged: “She had loved her nan … and loved her still in some buried, deep way, often dreaming about her very early in the morning, so that she would wake with the comforting feeling that this uncomplicated, affectionate woman was sleeping in the next room.”
Niall, her sometime lover, has a brother Kieran, from whom he is estranged. When their morphine-addicted mother jumped off a cliff, the childless and widowed housekeeper Gerry-Annie proved a far more effective caregiver, particularly for Kieran, whom she transformed from a tantrum-throwing misfit to a local hero.
Fathers are similarly deficient. Niall and Kieran’s father becomes “prematurely old and absent” when their mother dies. (He is a poignant variation on Austin Fraser’s distant father in The Underpainter: “Emotion was almost entirely absent from the contact we had with each other.”) Tam regards her father as a “fool … Opinionated, sometimes blind to the suffering of others, and, always opportunistic, … the kind of fool who preys on the foolishness of others.” Niall becomes the protégé of the meteorologist McWilliams while Kieran is coached to a state of physical and spiritual perfection by the mystical role model Michael Kirby, whose understanding of brain development is decades ahead of his time.
It is as if Tam and the Riordan brothers had multiple partial parents rather than two whole ones. This may explain why there are so many love triangles in The Night Stages (as well as in other Urquhart works). After one looks for love from multiple sources, one partner is never enough. Before Tam, Niall was the angle in another triangle composed of himself, his fiancée and his brother, Kieran. Kenneth Lochhead, whose fictionalized story threads through the narrative, recalls his mentor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Art, Harding, a married man who recounts his torturous involvement with another man’s wife. While working in 1957–58 on the mural that catches Tam’s attention a few years later, Lochhead reminisces about the married woman who failed to meet him for the tryst they arranged in Italy, and depicts another philandering couple he observed during his travels.
The mural acts as a kind of telescope on infidelity. While trying to break away from her married lover, Tam contemplates the adulterous couple in the mural painted by an artist who dabbled in infidelity himself. There is always a third party, who is present in the heart of one of the lovers but physically absent from the picture.
Yet for all these trysts and clandestine loyalties, The Night Stages is not an erotically charged book, even though physical contact is movingly described: “There was always that one moment she waited for,” writes Urquhart of Tam, “when he would place his forehead at the intersection of her neck and shoulder … the rest of her life without him vanished; then language, then geography until there was only the white rectangle of the bed and how they moved there. There was the soft zone beneath his ribs at the place where his waist met his hips, and her own waist twisting in his hands, his breath entering her throat.”
The exchange of breath rather than bodily fluids, the caress of non-erogenous zones, conveys the tenderness and nurturing quality of this couple’s encounters. Niall’s gesture of placing his forehead against Tam’s neck is one of trust, not lust. It is mute physical communion. Ironically, this kind of trust only seems possible between lovers who are betraying someone else.
In the culminating scene, Niall recounts to Tam his realization that his fiancée had betrayed him when he sees her weeping over Kieran’s injured shoulder. Observing Niall’s rage at the sight of the tender care given to his brother, Tam fully grasps the depth of envy that drove him to enforce the marriage, not only to separate Kieran and his fiancée, but also to condemn himself to a loveless marriage as punishment for defeating his brother in love.
“I don’t believe that life offers us many consolations of the same size and weight as it offers us hurts,” wrote the Irish novelist and memoirist Nuala O’Failain. “But we can patch things over with what life does offer.”
That Jane Urquhart shares this Irish sensibility is evident in the modest, domestic way that Tam and Kieran patch over their lives. Solitary, industrious household maintenance seems a rather mundane solution to their dramatic struggles, but it locates each of them in a secure domain that gives them hope. Tam aborts her trip to New York and returns to the Kerry County cottage where she once felt loved by Niall. Kieran ends years of homelessness by returning alone to Gerry-Annie’s now empty cottage and taking up its repair.
Like many of us, Urquhart’s characters set out in life with major hopes and end up living in a minor key. It is this plaintive melody that makes her writing so resonant.