People like me are supposed to have next to no attention span. But in fact, in my case, quite the opposite is true: my attention span is limitless; it's just a matter of where my focus settles: a buried hotel, a butter press, the salt shaker, the County atlas, the genealogy and then, and then him, him, him. (p. 134)
Jerome, a young artist, discovers the body of a dead man in the ice of Lake Ontario, where he's spending time in solitary artistic retreat. Fast-forward a year: Sylvia, a middle-aged doctor's wife, is venturing alone to the city -- despite her nameless 'condition', which has enforced a sheltered life -- to seek out Jerome and speak of the dead man, Andrew, who was her lover.
At first Jerome isn't enthusiastic about talking to this 'old woman': his girlfriend Mira smoothes the way. Soon enough he's drawn into Sylvia's story and her innate strangeness. Sylvia tells of watching Andrew gradually forget her even when they were in the same room; she speaks of his fascination with historical geography -- "the mistakes of his ancestors had made this a kind of dynastic necessity" (p. 77) -- and the energy he poured into unravelling the stories of those ancestors. His journals, which Sylvia has kept (this is important) and lends to Jerome and Mira, describe the lives of Branwell and Annabelle, brother and sister, who grew up on that lake-island in the late nineteenth century. Branwell became a prosperous hotelier; Annabelle remained unmarried, painting scenes of destruction wholly disconnected with the quiet vistas of the lake. Around them, the economy changed from wood to shipping to barley; the land changed, and broke; the sand rose and swamped the hotel.
The characters in A Map of Glass are flawed, startling, doing their best. Sylvia's 'condition' is never named, though her husband discusses it with Jerome. Andrew's illness is only named at the end of the novel: until then it's eerie, limitless, strange and estranging. Jerome hauls his own past (and especially his relationships with his parents) out for inspection. And back in the heyday of the shipping business, Annabelle roots herself in the land, holds on, carves herself a quiet life. (She is not a romantic, as is evidenced by her remarks on Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot: “She should have stuck to her loom, or better still, she should have gone outdoors into the fresh air and got some exercise.” (p. 232))
Sylvia -- "Haven’t I always been a missing person?" -- is at the heart of the novel. She sees how the past is layered -- buried -- beneath the present, both literally (decades of wallpaper covering a beautiful and painstakingly-executed mural) and figuratively. Though she has seldom ventured beyond the confines of the County where she lives, she knows her territory intimately, and moves through a landscape that has a temporal dimension.
Each aspect of the County ... had been named, filled, emptied, ploughed and planted long ago; all harvests belonged to the dead who insisted on their entitlement. "I cut the trees, built the mills, sawed the boards, made the roads, fenced the fields, raised the barns," they had told her in the dark of her childhood bedroom. (p. 147)
A Map of Glass -- the title has several resonances, including the textured maps that Sylvia makes for her blind friend Julia, and the tale of a melted glass floor, and Robert Smithson's artwork Map of Broken Glass -- is, I suppose, a love story: but the love story is as much between Andrew and landscape, between Jerome and art, between Sylvia and her intimate focus on the world, as it is between Sylvia and Andrew.
Another wintry novel, and a quietly thought-provoking one. I'll look out for more by this author.