Jane Urquhart Criticism - Essay

Joyce Wayne (review date March 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of False Shuffles, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 49, No. 3, March, 1983, p. 66.

[In the following positive review, Wayne briefly discusses stylistic and thematic aspects of False Shuffles.]

Once in a very long while a book of poetry appears that is so strong and original it signals the discovery of a remarkable new talent.

Jane Urquhart's second book of poetry, False Shuffles, is one of these occasions. Filled with the lives of small-town eccentrics, Niagara Falls daredevils, undertakers' brides, and beer-hall waitresses, the book is both expertly crafted and emotionally compelling.

At its heart, False Shuffles is about the power of magic as the poet, portrayed as magician, explores a surrealistic world. Illusion takes precedence over reality, and the odd, the eccentric, and the ghostly mean more than the daily news.

The language is intensely private and the imaginative landscape is highly charged with passion and memory. It's a shadowy, eerie landscape Urquhart creates where a turn-of-the-century bride records the number of bodies drowned in Niagara Falls and another girl dismantles a tombstone in search of a dead woman's clothes.

The poems are written mainly as tales, in a voice deceptively straightforward but always alert, tense, and often on the verge of some ghastly discovery. It is a voice that rips open the surface of the ordinary to reveal the magic and horror lurking beneath the commonplace, a voice that has chosen, almost reluctantly, to tell the stories of her own ancestors as if they were concealed treasure in an abandoned graveyard.

These poems will clutter your dreams with their dark, illuminating vision, for they are, as Urquhart describes them: "loose bits of paper carried by the wind / caught for a moment / on the fence around this time."

Rhea Tregebov (review date May 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 50, No. 5, May, 1984, p. 35.

[In the following mixed review, Tregebov asserts that The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan "is a well-written little book … that reveals a poet who could do more if she wanted to."]

Madame de Montespan's 10-year career as mistress of Louis XIV (he built the Petite Trianon at Versailles for her) ended in scandal. She was implicated in the poisoning scare that raged through the court in the late 1670s. Madame had administered love potions to Louis, but greater mischief was not proved conclusively: Louis himself destroyed the trial records to preserve her name. If more such facts had been noted somewhere in Jane Urquhart's book of poems, it would be more easily appreciated.

Nonetheless, this is a well-written little book (illustrated with some very fine photos by Ottawa artist Jennifer Dickson) that reveals a poet who could do more if she wanted to. Urquhart has chosen to speak in the voice of Mme de Montespan, recounting a glistening world of surfaces where the sun (king) "polishes your tables / his brilliance clings to cutlery / till spoons become large / bright incisions / all across the grain". In portraying the circumscribed life of a woman whose existence is dependent on the eye of the beholder—"the hours filled with / preservation of her flesh"—the poems themselves, too often, are constrained, even slight.

The prose poems, however, expand both subject and scope, and Versailles becomes a metaphor for human will. These poems demonstrate that Urquhart is a poet of depth and intelligence.

Lola Lemire-Tostevin (review date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Museum & World," in Canadian Literature, No. 104, Spring, 1985, pp. 134-36.

[In the following excerpt, Lemire-Tostevin offers a thematic discussion of The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan.]

Jane Urquhart has chosen a museum as the setting for her third book. The poems of The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan hover in and out of the rooms and gardens of Versailles in the persona of Montespan who was for a while a favourite mistress of Louis XIV. They pause over catalogued items and saved artifacts like "loose fragments drawn into new configurations." They shift behind windows and over brocade coverings of baroque beds; they witness and...

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Ian Sowton (review date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sleight of Tongue," in Canadian Literature, No. 106, Fall, 1985, pp. 112-15.

[In the following excerpt, Sowton discusses intertextual aspects and influences of False Shuffles.]

One very fine effect of the intertextualities at play in False Shuffles (among cards/book of tricks/Urquhart's poems) is the witty problematization of a three-generation history: grandmother, mother, narrating daughter. The interleaved lexicon—of false shuffle: transparent swizzle stick: magician: sleight: tricks—genially but persistently interrogates our shaky everyday equilibriums between narration and what is narrated, between verbal signs and their purported herstorical referents. Consider this gem from [Blackstone's Tricks Anyone Can Do] which Urquhart deals in just before the section on "False Shuffles": "This is a real false shuffle. It will require considerable practice to render it deceptive"; in their earlier site these remarks are straight; here, in their later site, they undergo a deep intertextual seachange and glow with gorgeous multiple equivocations. The semiotics of False Shuffles is very subtle; as a sign system this deck of texts offers not only citations that function simultaneously as thematic epigraphs, equivocating commentary, and caveat lectors, but also the bonus of Tony Urquhart's visual representations of playing cards, including a delicious 9 of Clubs in which signifiers for clubs also signify trees in a suitably enigmatic landscape. Documents and documentations, too, are extremely important in the weave of this text. Old documents, scraps of family or district records, bits of local lore are, as it were, edited—recovered, ordered, and re-narrated as an equivocal but indispensable context, or pretext, of the narrator's own life story. She documents her own brief career as a failed barmaid; the reason she fails is precisely because she is a documenter; her colleagues who stay and make it can do so because "they were living it / just living it / documenting nothing."

The section "False Shuffles" is all the more interesting in that the relationship the teller is trying to recount actively resists even the compromised certainties of documentation—as well it might, being a surreal relationship to a shape-changer, a spellbinding, illusionist-magician. The shouted injunction at the end of "Party Game," "remember these objects / AND WRITE THEM ALL DOWN," is a major pretext for this whole collection. This writer-down has a very nice sense of all the sleights endemic to remembering and writing, her calibrations of that slightest of twists between a genuine shuffle and a false one.

Jane Urquhart with Geoff Hancock (interview date 13 December 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in The Canadian Fiction Magazine, No. 55, 1986, pp. 23-40.

[The editor of The Canadian Fiction Magazine, Hancock is a Canadian journalist and critic who has edited several books about and anthologies of Canadian literature. In the following interview, originally conducted in late 1985, Urquhart discusses her life, art, and influences.]

Jane Urquhart was born in northern Ontario, and now lives near Waterloo, Ontario. She is an accomplished creative writer of both poetic and prose forms. Her poems are collected in False Shuffles; The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan; and I Am Walking In The Garden of His Imaginary Palace, a...

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Brent Ledger (review date November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Whirlpool, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 52, No. 11, November, 1986, p. 25.

[In the following review, Ledger offers a highly negative assessment of The Whirlpool.]

[The Whirlpool] is a dissertation masquerading as a novel and as deceptions go, it's not terribly successful. Pity the poor reader who, lured by the Signature Series' romance-style covers, opens the book and looks for a story. 'Twould be in vain: there's no plot, little characterization, next to no dialogue, and certainly no drama.

Urquhart is after a berth in the CanLit pantheon. The three major characters in her novel live beside the whirlpool in 19th-century Niagara Falls. They live in separate solipsistic bubbles, seldom talking, almost never touching. In each case, the character's major relationship is with nature. It's that golden oldie, that cherished Canuck chestnut: man against nature or, will we survive with our garrison mentality intact? Maude the undertaker lives in peaceful co-existence with the whirlpool, making a living by burying its victims. Fleda lives on Whirlpool Heights where she views the Canadian landscape through the filter of Wordsworth and Browning (and looks in vain for a Canadian Heathcliff). Patrick the poet sees the whirlpool as a metaphor and tries to skim meaning from it by swimming the vortex. He dies. That's the most exciting event in the book and it occurs off camera. When it comes to this sort of theme, Edgar Rice Burroughs did it better.

The only fun in Urquhart territory is dry and intellectual, a sort of academic party game: plucking trendy themes from Urquhart's impeccable but ultimately boring prose. There's lots of them, and most of them you've heard before: the Canadian view of nature, the effect of social mythologies on personal action, the stupefying effects of domestic drudgery on women, the arbitrary nature of signs. It's as if Margaret Atwood had co-authored a book with Roland Barthes—and left her wit behind. An ill-digested mess of Canadian cultural criticism and French linguistic theory, The Whirlpool is a novel with a couple of heads but no heart.

Nancy Wigston (review date 6 December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Eccentrics in a Luminous Maelstrom," in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, December 6, 1986, p. E21.

[In the positive review below, Wigston relates the story line of The Whirlpool, noting Urquhart's focus on history and eccentric characters.]

The Whirlpool is a jewel of a book: its finely polished facets are full of light, yet suggest numerous depths. The depths are real, for the story takes place in late nineteenth-century Niagara Falls, and much of the action focuses on the mystery of the huge cataract and its adjacent whirlpool. But the depths here equally serve to illuminate the collective identity of a people.

Jane Urquhart...

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Sherie Posesorki (review date January-February 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Whirlpool, in Books in Canada, Vol. 16, No. 1, January-February, 1987, p. 26.

[In the following, Posesorki provides a mixed assessment of The Whirlpool.]

The person and poetics of Robert Browning cast a giant shadow over Jane Urquhart's ambitious first novel The Whirlpool. In her prologue Urquhart presents the elderly Browning in Venice, overwhelmed by his recollections of the poet Shelley and by portents of his death. This romantically morbid vignette introduces the major leitmotivs of her novel: dreams, obsessions, death, and their relationship to the production of art.

Browning wrote, "Throughout life, 'tis death makes life live. Gives it whatever the significance." That is the premise Urquhart dramatizes through the lives of her characters, who all are cocooned in the mourning of their death-related obsessions and livelihoods. Maud Grady, the undertaker's widow, spends her days tenderly tending the dead, and her nights dreaming of her late husband. She ignores her autistic son in favour of her "dolls"—dead young girls that she prepares for embalming. Military historian David McDougall marries a woman who resembles the spectre who haunts his dreams—Laura Secord—and neglects her in his pursuit of his studies. His wife Fleda, preoccupies herself with compulsive rereadings of Browning by the edge of a whirlpool, where Patrick, a poet, spies on her, then takes her as his muse.

Urquhart's prose is clear and vivid, and her characters' obsessions have a brooding power. Nonetheless, the pulleys of her ideas have more force and drama than the lives of her characters. They don't embody and enact her concepts: rather, they ride them, like children on a carousel. What is missing from The Whirlpool is the fictional alchemy that transforms the dead matter of fiction into the warm flesh of life.

William French (review date 25 June 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Storm Glass, in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, June 25, 1987, p. D1.

[French is a Canadian editor and critic. In the favorable review below, he surveys several of the stories collected in Storm Glass.]

Glib generalizations won't do in any discussion of Jane Urquhart's fiction. Just when she seems to be establishing a pattern in this first collection of 17 short stories [entitled Storm Glass], she darts off in another direction and ambushes our expectations.

But it can be said, without fear of contradiction, that she has impressive talent. There's nothing simple and obvious here; concentric circles of meaning ripple out...

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Timothy Findley (review date June-July 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Through the Looking Glass," in Books in Canada, Vol. 16, No. 5, June-July, 1987, p. 14.

[Findley is a renowned Canadian novelist, playwright, and scriptwriter. In the following review, he praises Urquhart's focus on and striking evocation of character, time, and place in Storm Glass.]

In 1986, Jane Urquhart published her first novel, The Whirlpool, to almost universal critical acclaim. When it met with a negative response, it tended to offend or bemuse because of its imaginative content. In The Whirlpool, Urquhart treated reality with contempt. She was clearly a courageous stylist with a unique vision—and such writers rarely escape without...

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Patricia Bradbury (review date July 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jane Urquhart's Short Stories in the Landscape of the Poet," in Quill and Quire, Vol. 53, No. 7, July, 1987, p. 64.

[In the review below, Bradbury discusses Storm Glass, its imagery and symbolism, its poetic quality, and its similarities to the works of the Romantics.]

"It was an attraction to the mysterious 'other'," says poet and novelist Jane Urquhart, "that started me writing short fiction … that wild desire to explain, if only to myself, a landscape, an era, a human being, an event, about which I had little knowledge and to which I had but limited access…. Writing fiction can be, you see, the most satisfying form of armchair travel…. And as I...

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Russell Brown (review date May-June 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Gathering of Seven," in The American Book Review, Vol. 10, No. 2, May-June, 1988, pp. 10, 21.

[An educator and critic, Brown has served as co-editor of anthologies of Canadian literature. In the excerpt below, he reviews The Whirlpool and Storm Glass. Although faulting Urquhart's ability to effectively sustain narrative movement in her works, he extols the precision of her prose style.]

Jane Urquhart, Janice Kulyk Keefer, and Paulette Jiles are three fiction writers who began as poets, and their fiction remains rooted in poetry. Although that poetic quality is part of the attractiveness of their writing, at times it is achieved at the cost of...

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Katherine Ashenburg (review date March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Inside Stories," in Saturday Night, Vol. 105, No. 2, March, 1990, pp. 53-5.

[In the following excerpt, Ashenburg discusses the prominent role of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847) in Changing Heaven.]

The desire to read or reread the hero's work is a strange but real measure of success in this genre. Judged by this yardstick (as well as by others), Jane Urquhart's second novel, Changing Heaven, succeeds superbly. Urquhart, who bracketed her first novel, The Whirlpool, with scenes of Robert Browning's dying in Venice, has created a tartly level-headed ghost of Emily Brontë for the presiding genius of her new book.


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Thomas M. Disch (review date 18 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Niagara Falls Gothic," in The New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1990, p. 16.

[Disch is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, editor, librettist, and author of books for children. He has also written under the name Leonie Hargrave and the joint pseudonyms Thom Demijohn and Cassandra Kyne. In the following, he provides a negative review of The Whirlpool.]

Jane Urquhart's new book, The Whirlpool, is an almost perfect example of the first novel in the common, and pejorative, sense of the term. Of course, there are as many types of first novels as there are types of novels, and the type the Canadian poet Jane Urquhart has aspired to is one of...

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Janice Kulyk Keefer (review date April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stormy Weather," in Books in Canada, Vol. IXX, No. 3, April, 1990, pp. 31-2.

[Keefer is a Canadian poet, short story writer, novelist, and critic. In the review below, she praises the prose style and originality of Changing Heaven, but faults the novel's structure and Urquhart's attempts to "demystify" Emily Brontë.]

Like her first novel, The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart's latest work of fiction plunges us into a world of passions and marvels and intricate obsessions. Changing Heaven opens with a meditation on wind and weather, invoking those tempests of mind and heart without which we cannot achieve our full stature or understand our true...

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Bin Ramke (review date May-June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Whirlpool, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, May-June, 1990, p. 21.

[In the following review, Ramke, an American poet and educator, praises The Whirlpool for the feeling of poetry it conveys.]

The events of Jane Urquhart's first novel [The Whirlpool] take place on various borders; not merely the geographical and geological border between the United States and Canada (on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls), but also on borders between married couples, between those with language and those without, even between the living and the dead. The characters include Maud Grady, the widow of the town's deceased undertaker, a...

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Elìn Elgaard (review date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Whirlpool, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 3, Summer, 1991, p. 487.

[In the following review, Elgaard discusses characterization in The Whirlpool.]

Set in the (Canadian) Niagara of the 1880s, Jane Urquhart's first novel portrays characters who seek life rather than live it. Patrick, the poet, observes landscape—and the woman "mysteriously" inhabiting it—as perfect, ethereal architecture, not to be sullied by the mundane (i. e., flesh-and-blood vulnerability). Fleda, the dreamer, reads and breathes Browning's poetics, soon Patrick's as well, with a tenderness—for his reality—that he cannot countenance: "Patrick began...

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Jeffrey Canton (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ghosts in the Landscape," in paragraph, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991, pp. 3-5.

[In the following essay, based on an interview with Urquhart, Canton reveals Urquhart's thoughts on the writing process and the role of landscape and the fantastic in her work.]

"I had explored the graveyard outside the Bronte parsonage," explains Jane Urquhart, "but on my way out to the moors, I noticed another graveyard, slightly newer. Wandering through it, I saw a tombstone engraved with a balloon, and a woman's name and dates. It's one of the most terrifying graveyards that I've been in. When I went to live in Yorkshire, in the village of Stanbury, which is as close to the site of...

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Susan Macfarlane (review date Spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Train & Balloon," in Canadian Literature, No. 132, Spring, 1992, pp. 209-10.

[In the following excerpt, Macfarlane praises Urquhart's "tight interlacing of metaphor, structure and theme" in Changing Heaven.]

Changing Heaven is a novel apparently fragmented into individual stories telling of separate characters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries…. [T]hese stories are linked through theme and recurrent images, but the characters, too, begin to merge into each other's stories. Arthur and Ann, two twentieth-century academics, have at first separate chapters, but their stories converge as they become enmeshed in an increasingly stormy affair....

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Nancy Wigston (review date August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Away, in Quill and Quire, Vol. 59, No. 8, August, 1993, p. 28.

[In the following review, Wigston offers a favorable assessment of Away.]

In Jane Urquhart's fictional renderings of the Canadian past, history is transformed into a series of fluid images. The title of her new novel, Away, reverberates with meaning. First, it indicates the mysterious condition suffered by Irish peasant women who have encountered a daemon lover from the "other world," the enchanted realm that now and then collides with this one. Second, it refers to the forced migration of the Irish to Canada, forced when the deadly scythe of the potato famine cut them down...

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Elizabeth Grove-White (review date 11 September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Dazzling Novel of Home and Away," in The Globe and Mail, Toronto, September 11, 1993, p. C22.

[In the following review, Grove-White praises Urquhart's evocation of time and place in Away, noting that despite the specificity of its locale, the novel has universal relevance.]

For anyone who believes that Canadians, or at least Canadians of European descent, are soulless, sexless creatures who inhabit not so much a landscape as a bottom line, Jane Urquhart should be required reading. Like Michael Ondaatje in Toronto and Jack Hodgins on Vancouver Island, Urquhart dreams our history for us, peopling the countryside around Lake Ontario with revenants born...

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Gale Harris (review date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Art and Revelation," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 23, 43.

[In the excerpt below, Harris relates Urquhart's focus on art, creation, and obsessive love in Changing Heaven.]

The relationship between art, the artist, and the appreciation of art has long intrigued writers of fiction. This theme is explored brilliantly in new novels by [Jane Urquhart and other] emerging but already masterful authors who freely transcend boundaries between centuries, life and death, and reality and memory….

In Changing Heaven, Jane Urquhart weaves together stories about Victorian and modern couples as she...

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Janet McNaughton (review date October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Magically Real," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXII, No. 7, October, 1993, p. 44.

[In the following, McNaughton offers praise for Away.]

Jane Urquhart's Away is a complex layering of ideas about emotions and emotions about ideas. If that sounds too intellectual, Away is also one of those novels that moves in and takes over your life. Urquhart writes on a very large canvas, spanning more than a century and two continents. The book begins in pre-famine Northern Ireland, when beautiful young Mary pulls a drowning man from a sea awash with cabbages, silver teapots, and casks of whisky. The man dies in Mary's arms. Ever after he is regarded as Mary's demon...

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Barbara Holliday (review date 17 August 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Multigenerational Tale Adds Poetic Lift to Women's Issues," in Detroit Free Press, Section D, August 17, 1994, p. 3.

[Holliday is an American critic. In the following review, she relates the story line of Away.]

Jane Urquhart is an Irish Canadian who writes with the lilt of the Old Sod. Her third novel, Away, brings alive an old superstition linked to today's consciousness.

Away is the story of four generations of women, three of whom, in the author's words, are women of extremes. They either stay young into old age or age very young. They thrive near water. Men, states of mind, come and go. In the end, these bright, engaging...

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Kelly Hewson (review date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Away, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 143-44.

[In the following, Hewson offers a highly favorable assessment of Away, noting Urquahart's focus on story and voice.]

The title of Jane Urquhart's third novel [Away] is not just a reference to Mary, an intriguing character who, on a remote island off the northern coast of Ireland, gets taken by a daemon lover, renamed, and claimed by the "other-world." Rather, the condition of being "away" resonates as a metaphor, reminding us how a writer must feel when she is writing or a reader when she is engaged by fiction, unwilling or unable to leave completely the...

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Jane Urquhart with Elaine Kalman Naves (interview date 7 February 1995 and 2 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Books in Canada, Vol. XXIV, No. 4, May, 1995, pp. 7-13.

[In the following interview, which was conducted over the course of a few weeks in early 1995, Urquhart discusses her life and her art.]

Jane Urquhart began her literary career as a poet, publishing three collections: I Am Walking in the Garden of His Imaginary Palace (1982), False Shuffles (1982), and The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan (1983). She has also written a book of short stories—Storm Glass (1987)—but she is best known for her novels, all published by McClelland & Stewart: The Whirlpool (1986), Changing Heaven (1990), and...

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