A lyrically beautiful novel by Canadian Jane Urquhart (does she write any other kind?) that takes place mainly in Canada and France. Published in 2001, it weaves psychological portraits of people whose lives are filled with impossible love and haunting pain into a story fleshed out by meticulous historical research, giving a compelling and gorgeous tapestry that is sure to please any discerning reader. I'm going to give an outline of the story here, but if such things bother you, please just pass by this node and go elsewhere.
It tells of a town in northern Ontario founded by a Bavarian priest, Father Gstir, sent by the mad king Ludwig to save souls in the new world. Wandering through the dense Canadian forest he comes to a valley where he has a vision of the town to come, complete with magnificent church - with bell - and a brewery. (Father Gstir is not one of those priests who eschew alcohol, oh no.) And thus the town of Shoneval is begun.
But the real story is about Klara and Tilman, a sister and brother, born and raised in that town. They are taught wood carving by their grandfather, but though Klara is the more talented, the old man cannot recognize skill in a girl, and lavishes his attention on Tilman. Tilman is a troubled soul, however, who cannot stay rooted or be intimate with anyone. He wanders off for months at a time, and when his mother tries to hold him down, leaves the family home for good.
Klara, meanwhile, falls in love with a village boy, only to be devastated when he enlists to fight in World War I. She puts all thoughts of love from her head, angry and stubborn, and lives out her days as a hardened spinster, inheriting the family farm and working as a tailor.
One day, many years later, Tilman returns, minus a leg he lost in the war. Klara conceives the idea of going to Europe to work on the massive stone Vimy Memorial being erected by the Canadian artist Walter Allward to commemorate the thousands of Canadian soldiers who lost their lives on Vimy Ridge. (This part of the novel is real. The memorial was designed by Allward and built over many years in the fields of France.) Disguised as a man, Klara and her brother set off; on reaching their destination, they gain work on the monument as stone carvers. In this strange place they each find love: Klara for the second time in her life, with an Italian Canadian fellow carver; Tilman for the first time, with a fat French chef.
Beautiful as Urquhart's writings are, I sometimes find them almost too painful to read, so great is the torment of her characters, but this one satisfied with its happy ending, throwing a bit of light on the lives of these tortured souls. A lovely book.