Away is the story of Esther who is reflecting on family history while she is losing her family homestead to the progress of a quarry. The historic tale begins when an Irish girl named Mary discovers a sailor clinging to life on a barrel in the surf. He calls her Moira and she falls asleep in his arms until she is found the next morning in the arms of the dead sailor. Her mother and locals find her to be “away” or within herself, stolen by those in another world. She is given to responsibility of preparing the sailor for burial and he remains in her thoughts and her songs for the rest of her life.
The men in the community become infatuated with the beautiful red-headed woman. After the priest suffers from dreams of Mary and hears too many confessions about the men’s dreams from his congregation, the priest attempts to exorcise this spirit. Unsuccessful, he encourages his friend Brian, a local hedge school teacher to marry her and she leaves the community with this kind, gentle and understanding man.
The young couple celebrate the birth of their son Liam and then struggle to support themselves during the Irish famine. The hedge school is disbanded and their meagre crop of potatoes rot. The family makes avoids the starvation of many of their neighbours by collecting and eating seaweed before their landlord sends them to Canada to start a new life.
The little family survives their traumatic trip, living through terrible conditions and the deaths of many of the fellow travellers before arriving in Canada. They travel overland to the Canadian shield and learn to cope with the harsh Canadian winter as they try to farm the rocky terrain, making ends meet with Brian teaching at the local school. Mary births a daughter, Eileen and breaks “away” again disappearing from her family into the Canadian wilderness.
Esther shares this story as well as the tales of subsequent generations of the family as they establish their roots in Canada in the shadow of the story of Mary. This novel is mystical at times and shares the struggles of pioneering in Early Canada. It was interesting to read in a CBC article that the most powerful chapter of the story was described by Urquhart as below:
“The first scene of the book, which takes place on the island of Rathlin, came to me so swiftly and so powerfully that, although I can remember the colours of the autumn maple outside the third story window, and the look of the open Hilroy notebook on the white desk in the room, I cannot recall the act of writing it at all. I do know, however, that after I had finished writing, I was so exhausted that I descended the stairs to a bedroom and slept for several hours in the middle of the day. It had been a gift to me, this opening scene.”
This author wrote Away in 1993 and it was chosen for the 2014 Canada Reads competition. It is unique and the prose is beautifully written and poetic at times despite the turmoil and starvation in Ireland followed by the devastating trip to Canada and struggles to survive. This author was new to me but her other novels will be added to my to be read pile. I will be watching to see if Urquhart who shares her time between Ontario and Ireland participates in any local author events.