"He is an older man walking in winter. And he knows this. There is white everywhere and a peculiar, almost acidic smell that those who have passed through childhood in a northern country associate with new, freshly fallen snow. He recognizes the smell but cannot bring to mind the word acidic. Snow, walking, and winter are the best he can come up with..."
"It might have been more than an hour ago that he remembered, and then forgot, the word island. But even now, even thoughtthe word for island has gone, he believes he is walking toward a known place."
This is a novel about ecology. The relationship of man and place, the topography of a landscape, the result that occurs when an aspect of the landscape is destroyed through the gradual and residual effects of greed.
It is a novel of memory. The mining of memory for nuggets of joy or understanding, the turning from and denial of memory, the relentless loss of memory through disease.
The three main characters in the first and last sections are each concerned with landscape and changes in landscape, the structures man creates, the abandonment and decay of structures...but each approaches the landscape from a different perspective. Artist, historian, lover.
And all three are involved in the various aspects of memory, again from different perspectives, but at least two of the perspectives begin to merge and encompass each other, breaking out of their original strictures.
The middle section is a history - of place and of family - told through the journals of Andrew Woodman. This is the section that most reviews have called the heart of the novel, and it is interesting and important because Andrew's journals contain the stories of several generations.
For me, however, the first and last sections were equally, perhaps more, important ...because of the emphasis on the different aspects of memory and because of Andrew's loss of memory.
The book is not a fast read. I don't think the novel should be rushed, nor do I think it will appeal to everyone, but it is a timely novel for me. I will be looking for Urquhart's other novels.
(Jerome, the conceptual artist, has great admiration for Robert Smithson's Map of Glass)