Monday, June 12, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 33nd Review - The Stone Carvers

Jane Urquhart's novel about WWI and the Vimy Memorial was a massive best seller back in 2001-2.  It appears it was long-listed for the Man Booker Award and a finalist for the Governor General's Award, but it didn't win either.  It's always hard to know why certain books win awards, but it may have been a few episodes that really strain credulity in The Stone Carvers that prevented it from finishing "in the money," as it were.

The novel opens with sort of an omniscient view where several generations' worth of stories are telescoped.  We find out that a German priest ends up being sent to Canada where he befriends a man who knows how to carve statues for his church.  This carver is the spinster Klara's grandfather.  I found this opening a bit annoying, partly because it felt like the technique had been lifted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and partly because the author threw in occasional asides to prove how clever she was.

I persevered, however, and the story did get a bit more engaging, as it stopped jumping around and focused on Klara.  The reader learns that Klara's brother, Tilman, would run away from home so often and for so long, that finally their parents chain him up in the shed.  After he escapes, he leaves their lives forever.  Klara loses her first love to WWI (he somewhat foolishly enlists, hoping to learn how to fly aeroplanes for the army).  At one point she learned to carve from her grandfather (even though he had really wanted to teach Tilman), but she eventually hangs up her chisels and focuses on being the tailor for the village.  So she has a life that seems fairly cramped and mostly marked by loss. 

But wait, there's more.  However, at this point, I have to break out the SPOILERS warning.


The point of view switches over to Tilman who survived after running away and learned the tricks of the road from a variety of hoboes.  Eventually he pairs up with an older Italian man, who eventually returns home to Hamilton.  Tilman is welcomed into the family.  Things finally seem to be looking up, but then the an economic recession hits.  When the army comes recruiting, he and the Italian's man's son enlist and get sent off to France.  Tilman survives, grievously wounded, and makes his way back to his home village, where he reunites with Klara.

As Klara has never gotten over her lost love, she decides it makes perfect sense for them to go back to France and work on the Vimy Memorial.  I was not really aware of this, but it seems pretty astonishing.  Nonetheless, I'm fairly unlikely to ever see it in person.

The plot gets a bit unrealistic and even melodramatic at this point in order for Klara to first, get hired (disguised as a man) and then later have a sort of Indian summer romance with one of the carvers on the monument.  Tilman falls into an even more unlikely relationship.  I was a little annoyed when I thought Urquhart had misled the reader early on (to hide the fact that the novel has a happy ending), though I suppose it is possible to square the first and last parts of the novel.  Some other reviewer talked about the perverseness of giving a novel about WWI a happy ending of sorts, though I suppose life does go on and must go on, even in the aftermath of a massive war.  For me, The Stone Carvers didn't quite live up to the hype, though I'm not sorry that I finally got around to reading it.

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