Books

Skin and stones

Sculptors are like lovers in this saga, awakening rock instead of flesh

John Bemrose April 16 2001
Books

Skin and stones

Sculptors are like lovers in this saga, awakening rock instead of flesh

John Bemrose April 16 2001

Skin and stones

Books

Sculptors are like lovers in this saga, awakening rock instead of flesh

John Bemrose

Family saga novels never seem to go out of fashion. From Mazo de la Roche's popular Jalna series to modern classics such as Gabriel Garcia Marquezs One Hundred Years of Solitude, millions of readers have succumbed to the prospect of tracing a family’s fate over several generations. “Fate” is the critical word here: forces that aren’t immediately obvious in the course of one generation emerge as a determining pattern over the long run. And so it is in Jane Urquhart’s poignant new novel,

The Stone Carvers (McClelland & Stewart, 392 pages,

$34.99), in which fate takes the form of inherited artistic talent. Urquhart has explored the artist’s psyche before, in both The Whirlpool (1986) and her Governor General’s Awardwinning The Underpainter (1997). But she has never followed the genetic trail of talent so closely: the way it disappears for a generation, only to erupt later, shaping the life of its possessor in unpredictable ways.

The Stone Carvers returns to the pioneer setting of Urquhart’s most popular

novel, Away (1993). But the author has shifted from that book’s largely Irish milieu to the German-speaking setdements of southwestern Ontario. She begins with a Catholic priest, Father Gstir, who has been sent to the setdement of Shoneval by Bavaria’s King Ludwig, an eccentric arts patron (and real historical figure) who first staged many of Wagner’s operas. Determined to build a church in

the wilderness, Father Gstir enlists the help of Joseph Becker, a Bavarian miller’s son with a gift for wood carving.

Joseph creates the church’s altars and statues, but his talent is not inherited by his son, Dieter. However, Dieter and his wife, Helga, have two children, Tilman and Klara, for whom carving becomes an obsession. Ultimately, they cross the Atlantic to work on sculptor Walter Allward’s Vimy Ridge monument to Canadas dead in the First World War.

There’s a unique flavour to Urquhart’s work that lies somewhere between the exaggeration of magic realism and the simplicity of folk art. Like the great figures adorning the Vimy monument, the characters of The Stone Carvers have a universal quality: often they seem more like types than individuals. This can lead to an irritating vagueness, but it also lends Urquhart’s novel—at least in its best passages—the stark force of a fairy tale. Klara represents all young women who have ever loved and lost: when her lover, Eamon, runs off to fight in the Great War and disappears, she becomes an icon ol repressed, smouldering grief.

Eamon, too, seems both simplified and larger than life. His strange, shy silence when he courts Klara has an epic quality, summoning up a lost world (lost, at least, to us noisy, busy moderns) where a single word or gesture can carry a universe of meaning. As she showed in Away, Urquhart can imbue such magicrealist characters with psychologically astute comedy. When Tilman takes to the roads as a hobo, he meets another wanderer called Refuto. Riven by guilt over an imagined crime, the man is a hilarious monument to negativity. His every statement manages to deny something, even his own existence. When Tilman refers to Refuto’s arms, the tramp replies indignantly: “What arms? Who says I got arms?”

Years after Eamon’s death, when Klara’s passion to commemorate him leads her to the Vimy memorial, she tampers with its marble statues and— in a vivid scene—gets into trouble with Allward. Urquhart powerfully evokes the wonders of stone and the carver’s art, always linking them to the human body. As stone takes shape under the sculptor’s chisel, so Klaras body wakes under the touch of a new lover she finds in France. But bodies and stone are both doomed to age, then disappear. A sense of mortality hangs over The Stone Carvers, and this is emphasized by the tact that neither Klara nor Tilman has children. Their genetic inheritance will vanish. But in Klara’s fierce use of her talent lies the novel’s moving promise that, if we are true to our gifts, we can at least strike a brief form from the obdurate stone of our fate. EH]