Away by Jane Urqhuart
By Zara Alexis D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Author: Jane Urquart
Format: Hardcover, 256 pages
Pub Date: April 28, 1994
The body of this novel in its narration is as suspended as the pendulum movement of waves in a body of water, of which the book is gravitationally focused.
It speaks of a history that dates back to 1842 on an island of Rathlin, just off the northern coast of Ireland and moves as its characters move in migration to the area of the Great Lakes in Canada 140 years later. As such, it is both a book of the early politics between the English and the Irish during the Irish famine in the mid 19th century and a book of displacement and yearning, immigration, and the search for home.
But it is also a book that speaks through women of four generations whose astute power to attract men to themselves is both a gift and a family curse much blamed on the dangerous power of beauty found in their pale, white skin against their red, fiery hair.
It is in this beauty that captivated the township of Cleggan, Kinramer, Church Bay, Ballygill, and Ballycarry etc. towards the character, Mary Slattery O’Malley, also renamed Moira, who was believed to be sought and taken “away” by a daemon lover from the sea.
The voice of the book is often written as lyrical fantasy, the language poetic and sentimental, which exemplifies the beauty of not only the landscape of the mind, but its connection to the beauty and glory of Ireland’s and Canada’s natural landscapes, its rivers and its forests.
As Mary Slattery O’Malley was tied to the shores of Rathlin Island and the women in her family after her: Eileen, to the forests and willow trees near Black River; and Esther, to the surf of Loughbreeze Beach – the nature of the land is exquisitely portrayed.
The women, though, become hosts of folklore:
Mary, in her withdrawn state and compulsion to imagine and be drawn to the spirit of her deceased beloved from the sea, removes herself both emotionally and physically from her husband and two children.
This same passion is passed down to her daughter, Eileen, whose innocence and creativity, is drawn to sleep in willow trees, to communicate with and have visions and prophecies from nature and conversations with namely a bird. The same power of compulsion drove her to sacrifice a life of material comfort and love alongside her brother, in search for her misplaced beloved, the political vagrant, Aiden Lanighan.
Though Urquhart’s writing can be both beautiful and poetic in her descriptions of love and nature, even the sorrowful lament of a community struck by famine, I found the extremism in these women to be obsessive, self-indulgent, and delusional to the point of hysteria.
Personally, I would have preferred the book without its political implications or its irrational bouts of “love-sickness,” but enjoyed the language of poetics and folklore told in the love of the landscape, history, and the style of recollection that Urquhart described.
Aside from that, I found its main female characters too melancholy and over dramatic for reason. I would enjoy the novel alone for its lyrical storytelling and haunting spirituality that resides in its respect and wonder at nature. But it’s not a novel I would allow myself to take too seriously. Unfortunately, it takes more than pale white skin and red, fiery hair to seduce me…