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There’s some fine writing in Jane Urquhart’s latest novel, but a glut of characters bogs down the narrative

Author Jane Urquhart’s The Night Stages is inspired by artist Kenneth Lochhead’s massive mural, Flight and its Allegories Allegories of Travel , that has presided over Gander, Nfld.’s airport lounge since 1959.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Title
The Night Stages
Author
Jane Urquhart
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
McClelland & Stewart
Pages
396 pages
Price
$32.95
Year
2015

Set mostly in mid-20th-century Ireland, Jane Urquhart's new novel is dedicated to three real-but-unconnected people who inspired some of its characters: the English Second World War aviator Vi Milstead Warren, the Irish poet Michael Kirby and the Canadian artist Kenneth Lochhead, famous for the massive mural, Flight and its Allegories, that has presided over Gander, Nfld.'s airport lounge since 1959. That they, and Urquhart's other characters, don't really connect on the page either is a problem that plagues The Night Stages, which, like most of the author's novels, depends for its fuel on the inexorable human emotions generated by love, blood, culture and circumstance.

As the novel begins, Tamara, or Tam – our Milstead Warren character – has just left her married lover Niall back in Ireland, a gesture whose drama is undercut slightly by the fact that they don't live together. Stuck in Gander on a layover while en route to New York, Tam spends the better part of three fogbound days gazing at Lochhead's mural, its egg-tempera surface not long dry. As she finds in the mural's stylized, interwoven figures analogies germane to her own situation, we in turn get a convenient, if stagy, portal into her backstory. (Staring at public art for three days in an airport might be your personal idea of hell, but Gander's perfectly preserved mid-century Canadian modernism, currently on the National Trust's endangered list, is something that should be beheld, or at least Googled.)

During the war, Tam had been one of a handful of female pilots who ferried planes around Britain for the Air Transport Auxiliary. Much is made of this unconventional past; yet, its main function in the narrative, aside from prompting some groaner metaphors ("It was as if the inner aircraft she was attempting to fly at the moment was too wounded and fragile to get her where she ought to go anyway"), seems to be as a contrast dye for everything that has, or rather hasn't, happened since. Tam's main occupation over the past few years has been mistress-in-waiting to Niall, whose job as a meteorologist has started to rub off on her in unpleasant ways: "The idea of him had surrounded the past few years like a damp climate, the air thick with it."

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The splinter in Niall and Tam's relationship is less Niall's wife, whom he still loves, than his brother, Kieran, who disappeared a few years ago. Growing up on the Iveragh Peninsula, Niall had been the gifted athlete and student, Kieran the troubled tantrum-thrower who went to live with the family housekeeper after the devastating death of their mother. Later, reticent to the point of muteness, Kieran spends solitary days cycling the peninsula. His pasttime eventually catches the attention of local poet Michael Kirby. Though not a cyclist himself, Kirby turns out to have the inscrutable coaching mien of a Jedi master.

Niall has never explained the circumstances around Kieran's disappearance to Tam. Those are to be revealed later, in the event toward which the novel slowly builds: an eight-day bicycle race in which the brothers find themselves unknowingly pitted against one another. Spurred by equal but opposing impulses – Niall by his innate competitiveness, Kieran by his passion for cycling and his brother's attractive young fiancée – their race chemistry falls somewhere between the Williams sisters and Cain and Abel.

Taken sentence by sentence, The Night Stages has some fine moments. Fans of Away will find here the same attractive turns of phrase and romantic Celtophilism – ghosts, mist, rocks, legends and unpronounceable place names – that helped catapult Urquhart to fame.

But in the larger, more crucial sense it fails to cohere. Tam herself gets close to pinpointing why when, during her mural musings, she praises Lochhead's work for the way each part "bleeds into its neighbour's territory … there are no disparate parts." This cannot be said for Urquhart's characters, who come to us like a series of Russian dolls, colourful in their way but ultimately hollow, discrete. There's a practical reason for this, which is that we just don't get to see them interacting much; when we do, it's with Urquhart's aloof omniscient narrator as chaperone.

There are also too many of them. Determined that we should be allowed to peer behind the mural that has so captured Tam's attention, Urquhart throws Lochhead himself into the mix as a fourth main character (though she cleaves to the rule of three everywhere else). Extrinsic to the Ireland-set action, his story dilutes the narrative far more than it focuses it and adds, unnecessarily, to the novel's almost comical pile-up of affairs.

In the end, there simply isn't enough narrative and emotional data to support Tam's transformation (as she herself puts it) from pilot to passenger, or the pang of conscience that will drive Niall all the way to America in search of a brother he acknowledges is a stranger to him. For a novel so focused on travel and movement, The Night Stages is frustratingly inert.

Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor.

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