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Urquhart, Jane.

Toronto. McClelland and Stewart. c1986. 237pp. paper. 512.95, ISBN 0-7710-8655-5. (McClelland and Stewart Signature series). CIP

Grades 12 and up
Reviewed by James Kingstone

Volume 15 Number 2
1987 March

Jane Urquhart's first novel (she has published three books of poetry) is a remarkable achievement: engaging, provocative, complex, and distinguished by an original and highly intelligent poetic sensibility. Though it has a plot, The Whirlpool has a prose poem density. Young readers overcome by impatience by the novel's style and structure should persevere; the book repays careful reading. Set in Niagara Palls in the summer of 1889, the novel focuses on the lives of several characters whose various obsessions, concentrated chiefly in the image of the whirlpool, draw them inexorably together. Characters are known by their quirkiness: Major David McDougal, a military historian, who comes to life when arguing that Canada, and not the United States, really won the War of 1812; his wife. Fleda, whose infatuation with Robert Browning's poetry imparts a dreamy, esoteric quality to the book; Patrick, a poet, determined to understand Fleda and the whirlpool, both curiously and inextricably linked in his mind; and Maud Grady, the undertaker's widow, whose zeal in recording the features of unidentified corpses from the Niagara River and seeing them properly buried, lends Urquhart's characterization a grainy, authentic quality. Grady's is the kind of single-minded eccentricity that rings true.

This is a novel for the mature, discerning reader, one who derives pleasure from penetrating complexity. The author's preoccupation with the interior life is wonderfully realised. The Whirlpool, as it rushes to its climax, gathers a charm and energy that make it compelling reading right to the end, an end that portrays the turbulent eddies of life in a dark vortex.

James Kingstone, Peterborough, Ont.
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