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The Stone Carvers (2015)

The Stone Carvers (2015)
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Rating
3.88 of 5 Votes: 3
ISBN
0747557802 (ISBN13: 9780747557807)
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English
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bloomsbury publishing plc
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The Stone Carvers (2015)
The Stone Carvers (2015)

About book: Jane Urquhart has demonstrated in A MAP OF GLASS and THE UNDERPAINTER how a person can be transformed by the power of art and memory. The characters are sometimes made whole, or shattered, or both. In this fifth novel, her eccentric, parochial characters emerge from the harsh, often punishing 19th-century landscape of a pioneer community in Southwest Ontario and stretch to a modern monument of the 20th century. Her characters tend to be repressed, isolated, and sexually chaste, or go through a long period of continence after a brief, signifying affair in their youth.Father Gstir was sent by the voice of God and King Ludwig from the pastoral landscape of Bavaria to the outback of Ontario, to minister to German-Catholic communities. He lands in the valley of Shoneval, a farming and mill town of hard working people who haven't had the time or inclination to attend church, and lures them to Mass by arranging a Corus Christi procession that invites community participation and planning. We are introduced to Jospeh Becker, a farmer and wood-carver with a rare talent, who befriends Father Gstir and creates beautiful sculptures for the new church. The only thing missing for the priest is a bell. He is obsessed with acquiring one, as he was in Bavaria--and ignored by the King. His obsession is one of several character's fanatical desires in this book.The story progresses non-linearly, but with active forward movement. The structure allows for the background of each character to evolve in gentle installments, but with seamless clarity. Joseph desires to pass on his artisan skills to his son, Dieter, but it is Dieter's daughter, Klara, who blossoms quietly as a carver, and also learns to master tailoring from her grandmother. Her brother, Tilman, named for the great sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, is too restive to stay and make figures-in-the-round from limewood; he is a wanderlust, and leaves the family when he is twelve after his parents chain him to the barn for roaming too frequently and too far from home."I went for a walk...I followed the road."As he wandered, he embraced the spines of hills and the language of water; he related to a bridge and compared it to home:"He loved that bridge with a child's love, the way a boy will love a tree house...But he loved it too in a way peculiar to his own nature, because it gave him shelter without closing him in. There were no impenetrable walls, no doors that might contain locks."Tilman becomes a hobo, and learns a lesson about love from unusual events. He meets another tramp, Refuto, on his travels, who enfolds him into his big, Italian, warm-hearted family. Tilman works in stoveworks for a while with Refuto's son, Girogio, trying to tame his meandering spirit, but then takes off to join as a soldier in WW 1. The prodigal son's return is fraught with meaning and a courageous stride into the future.Klara Becker, an attractive seamstress, has worked on a wood carving of a medieval abess for over twenty years, and finally abandons it to the barn with her grief intact. Her sorrow and subsequent repression stems from a tragic relationship with a young man, Eamon O'Sullivan, when she was twenty. Eamon was seduced by aeroplanes into WW 1, and departs to follow a burning dream of becoming a pilot. She devotes herself to the church and to her seamstress activities, and embraces her spinster self. The sculpture is consigned to loss."All her faith was gone and with it the desire for carving, for making something spiritual out of wood. With Eamon lost, she felt connected to no one."The themes of the story come together in the third part of the novel, near Arras, France, where sculptor Walter Allward is commissioned to create a monument to the Canadian soldiers who died at Vimy Ridge during WW1. Urquhart synthesizes the real life Allward into her novel to herald a compelling story of loss cumulating into redemption, obsession into letting go, repression into passion, and the prevailing, ubiquitous power of memory and the salvation of art.At first, I had difficulty adjusting to the last part of the novel, which removed me from the charming village of Shovenal. However, Urquhart convinced me, ultimately, by carrying her motifs and themes to this climactic achievement in history, a monument of memory, arranged by the obsessive Allward but animated by his artisans. Even the change from wood-carving to marble is symbolic, as the dead stone is brought to life in significant, poignant ways. There is so much to discuss about the final chapters, but it is difficult to do without adding spoilers.Allward: "Carve it with your heart then...Let it go out of your heart and into the stone."

Klara Becker had decided to live like a spinster. Although still young, she doesn't expect any more from life: tending the animals on her inherited farm, sewing clothes for the villagers to earn a little extra money, and burying the memories of love and loss, until... Klara is unquestionably Jane Urquhart's heroine in this wonderfully rich and absorbing novel about deep emotions, drive and determination. Set in the nineteen thirties, against the continuing aftermath of the most devastating historical event of the early twentieth century, World War I, the author, by concentrating on intimate portraits of her protagonists, brings to life the personal challenges ordinary people faced during these difficult times.The novel is structured into three distinct sections, focusing in turn on Klara, her brother Tilman and the construction of the Canadian War Memorial in Vimy, northern France. Klara's character comes to life primarily through her own observations and inner reflections. The depth of her emotional being that stands in sharp contrast to her external "spinster" persona, is exquisitely evoked in Urquhart's lyrical language. The following quote gives a taste of it: "When one embraces a moment of rapture from the past, either by trying to reclaim it or by refusing to let it go, how can its brightness not tarnish, turn grey with longing and sorrow, until the wild spell of the remembered interlude is lost altogether and the memory of sadness claims its rightful place in the mind?..."In this section, the narrative moves easily between the thirties and the late eighteen eighties when Klara's grandfather, master woodcarver Joseph Becker, immigrated from Bavaria to southwestern Ontario in search for a new life. He had settled in the village of Shonegal where he found work with Father Gstir's ambitious church project for his small Catholic German congregation. Shoneval remained the centre of Klara's world; wood carving the craft to be passed on through the generations. Tilman, Klara's older brother, less interested in wood carving than in following the migrating birds, leaves home at a young age. Klara, on the other hand, quietly imitated her grandfather until she was ready to embark on her own carving project. Urquhart draws on the close interaction between her heroine and her work in progress - the statue of an abbess - to reveal the different emotional stages Klara experienced. Joseph could describe the changes he saw in the abbess's face, yet only guessing the source for his granddaughter's inner upheavals.The third section of the novel draws the different threads of the story together and moves it to a different, yet intensely compelling level. The author provides an almost intimate account of the Canadian Vimy Memorial and the last stages of the work in progress, personalizing the direct involvement of its architect, Canadian Walter Allward and of the many skilled carvers implementing his dream. Her description of the enormous Monument, built on the actual battle field, and erected in memory of the many thousands of Canadian soldiers who perished in this decisive battle, leaves no doubt as to its impact on anybody seeing it. Urquhart's lyrical language evokes the eerie atmosphere that surrounds the carvers working high up on fragile platforms on either of the white limestone pylons that form the centre of the monument. The passages describing the intricate work of stone carvers whether swinging on ropes high up or working on engraving the thousands of names of the missing are some of the most memorable of the novel. The author imagines the stone carvers' daily existence: carving from dawn to dusk; living and breathing the atmosphere of the land, still saturated with the evidence of the war. For some, like for Klara and Tilman, the work is a release from the past, a new beginning that is grounded in forgiveness, closure and redemption. Not surprisingly, Urquhart, asked about what the novel was about, responded: "it is about the redemptive nature of art". Yes, indeed.By bringing the different threads of the novel together around the Vimy memorial, Urquhart also achieves an admirable harmonization between the intimately imagined lives of her characters and the broader historical reality. Shonegal, for example, is based on the town of Formosa, the actual Father Gstir built the enormous church up on the hill as described in the novel. The imposing Vimy Monument continues to be well known to Canadians of all generations; Walter Allward, almost forgotten since as the architect of the Monument, has been given a well-deserved tribute in Urquhart's novel.
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Reviews
Katie
I tried this book while driving as a 'book on cd' and I found that I couldn't make it through... I was about 1/3 of the way through the book and I couldn't keep with it... There were multiple stories going around and I think that it was just too disjointed for me. Had I read it straight out-maybe it would have been easier and I could have skimmed over the areas/people that didn't interest me as much to get to the heart of the story-but as it was I became bored/frustrated with the slow moving and disjointed story.
Dianne
In the opening years of the twentieth century, Klara Becker and her brother, Tilman, are growing up on a farm in Ontario, Canada. Klara is learning tailoring skills from her mother and carving skills from her Grandfather, Joseph, and Tilman is a wanderer who can't resist the urge to follow the road wherever it leads.Decades earlier, a priest in Bavaria, Father Gstir, receives a letter telling him he is being sent to a remote Canadian village to establish a church. There he will meet the young Joseph and enlist his help carving statues for the new church.When Klara becomes a young woman, she is courted by local boy, Eamon O'Sullivan. By this point, her brother is long missing and her mother has never recovered from the trauma of losing him. Then WWI breaks out and Eamon goes off to fight for his country.Now fast forward several years to Europe, where Toronto sculptor, Walter Allward, has been comissioned to carve a massive stone war memorial at Vimy, France. Klara has been reunited with Tilman and has convinced him to take her to France to take part in the memorial project.It sounds a bit convoluted but it isn't when you read it. It's a good story, well told, with each piece fitting perfectly into the bigger picture. The human need to commemorate, to remember the people, places and events that shape our lives is the thread that runs through it all and gathers it together into a moving tale of love, loss and art.The characters are convincingly human. They experience life deeply but are refreshingly reserved in expressing their feelings. The writing is clean and intelligent, moving along at a comfortable pace. Altogether an enjoyable read that will have me seeking out the authour's other novels and adding them to my TBR. I recommend this one.
Andrea (Cozy Up With A Good Read)
This review and others can be found on Cozy Up With A Good ReadThis is my first Jane Urquhart book, and I enjoyed the story but there were a few times I felt a little disconnected with the characters and the story. I could see how the switching of perspectives made this book difficult for some readers, but after getting used to it, I did enjoy the different stories and how they all connected to one another. The one story that really interested me was that of Klara's brother Tilman and what happened to him once he left home. It takes readers awhile to actually get to his story though. This book spans over many years, beginning with the settlers coming to Canada, and we see the effects of the First World War, to the building of the memorial at Vimy Ridge.I really enjoyed the back and forth from Klara growing up and her story of finding love, interspersed with the story of the building of the church and really how this little town got started. Klara's grandfather is the one who helped the priest build this great church and from there he teaches generations to come about carving. Klara learns by eavesdropping on her brother's lessons, and she becomes a master carver herself as well as a seamstress.At the heart of this story is how each of these characters has an obsession with some form of art, and it consumes them. But this obsession has also connected each of them to others over the course of their lives, and that has had affected their futures in large ways. Klara's story was beautiful and heartbreaking, watching her fall in love and then seeing him leave for war, it becomes difficult for Klara to trust again.I do have to say the most interesting point of the book for me was reading about the building of the monument. I found that as the book got further along, there were a few points that the point of view changed and we learned the history of a new character and it was confusing for me. I will say that I did love the power of art in this book and how it could hurt and heal at the same time. I think this is a beautiful book for Canadian Historical Fiction Month because readers really get a sense of Canadian history and seeing the immigrants come to Canada and make a home and the beginning of some cities. I also loved seeing the name of my hometown come up a couple of times (because it used to be a tiny place but now more people know about it!)Yes, this book was difficult to get through at times because of the many changing perspectives, but something about the writing kept me intrigued and kept me reading even when I wanted to put it down.
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