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The Whirlpool – Jane Urquhart



Posted September 2, 2016 by

The Whirlpool – Jane Urquhart – 1990


Reviewed by: Dave            Date: 5 December 2002

WhirlpoolEveryone in this novel is obsessive-compulsive, and they are SO obsessive that they compulsed me to stay behind in the trees somewhere above the whirlpool. They are all dysfunctional, and this in itself does not make for a bad novel (necessarily), but in this case it does. Their obsessions do not seem believable. The coincidence of them all knowing each other only adds to the improbability of their existing at all. Here’s the cast:

A man who ignores his beautiful wife because of his combined obsession with Canadian military history, and his fantasies about Laura Secord.

His wife… who lives in a tent in the woods near the whirlpool, and does nothing all day but wistfully wander and read books (mostly the poetry of Browning). Her inner life revolves around her perceived connection with the swirling waters of the whirlpool which seem to call to her… to speak to her.

Then there’s the poet-voyeur who accidently observes her in her wilderness setting because he too is obsessed with the whirlpool area. He becomes addicted to her (runs off with her shorn hair), befriends her husband to learn more about her, but cannot stand to be in her presence and avoids any verbal communication with her.

And there’s the superstitious undertaker-woman who loses her husband and parental in-laws to a mysterious plague all in one day, and is now forced to raise her speechless son on her own.

And oh yes, the speechless son who learns to repeat disconnected single words only after meeting the voyeur fellow. (?) Exactly.

The Old River Man who lives down by the whirlpool, and whose sole occupation is to use elaborate contraptions to fish drowned human bodies out of the water in exchange for booze from the undertaker woman.

The whirlpool is an area of water on the Canadian side, downriver of Niagara Falls, where this novel is set in the summer of 1889. All of these people interact with each other at one time or other, but the connection is weak in my opinion. There does not seem to be a unifying reason that any of them should even know each other. And like parentheses surrounding the novel, the first and last chapter are about Robert Browning… and I still don’t get it!

I feel that this book suffers greatly because the actions of the protagonists seem too symbolic, unrealistic, and ethereal… everything seems to mean something else. To the point that nothing means anything.

Like a really long poem that you just “don’t get!”

I got the book because I love some of Urquhart’s other writings, and because I love Niagara Falls. But this book was a disappointing read.

The Whirlpool
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