Book Review - Sanctuary Line

Like the monarch butterflies at the heart of the story, Jane Urquhart’s novel is a delicate work of rare beauty. In winter, Canada’s monarchs migrate south to Mexico. It is never the same monarchs that return. Most butterflies live for only a few weeks but the hardy Methuselah generation, live for nine months enabling them to make the long journey to Mexico. Their migratory patterns and remarkable genetic memory are powerful motifs in Urquhart’s novel.

Set in southwestern Ontario, Sanctuary Line depicts several generation of a prosperous farming family and four secret love stories. Liz Crane has recently returned to Lake Erie to study and tag the monarchs. The farm where she lives was owned by her charismatic uncle, Stanley Butler and his wife, Sadie, a cousin from the American side of the lake. As a child Liz spent glorious summers here with her mother.

Like the monarchs, the Butlers migrated as a means of survival and left Ireland a century before. By the 1980s, the farm had become a flourishing business and Liz’s uncle a renowned orchardist. At the novel’s start, Liz is mourning the loss of cousin Mandy, a brilliant military strategist with a love of poetry, recently killed in Afghanistan. As Liz reflects on the past, she recalls the Mexican labourers employed to harvest the fruit orchards, likening their annual journey to that of the monarchs.

The family’s love of poetry, passed down through the generations, is reflected in Urquhart’s lyrical prose, her pastoral allusions and the way certain recollections are echoed through the novel. She emphasises the transformative power of poetry and its ability to articulate unspoken feelings and emotions. Liz recalls the “uncertain, changing imagery” of the house, overlooking the lake, and once filled with mirrors and glass. She also remembers how an ordinary cedar was set alight with the monarchs’ orange wings and how the “butterfly tree” always signalled the end of summer. All her memories lead to the dramatic events of one night that were to tear the family apart and shatter Liz’s own fragile love.

This is a beautifully written novel about absence, homecomings and the unravelling of memories.

Published by the Independent on Monday 20 February