The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart


Word PressWe see war memorials everywhere, from the vast elaborate ones in capital cities to the small ones in tiny villages.  We also see them at the sites of great battles.  But, until I read this book, I’d never really thought much about the people who created them.  This is a fascinating novel, my one gripe being that it tries to graft together two stories which share themes but which aren’t really connected, and which I think might have been better dealt with in different books, or at least in different sections of a book.

The first, based on a true story is the story of a Catholic priest from Bavaria (although Google informs me that the real life priest actually came from Tyrol) who went out to a “backwoods” area of Ontario in the 1860s and was determined to build a grand, impressive church for his parishioners.  I can never understand why people think it’s appropriate to spend a fortune on places of worship instead of using the money to help those in need, but that’s beside the point!  He managed to get the money from some sort of foundation supported by Mad King Ludwig, and duly had the church built. Amazing true story.  And, apart from John Jakes’ excellent Homeland and American Dreams, there are very few books about the experiences of German immigrants in North America.

The author’s created a character, a wonderful carver, who carved statues and so on for the church.  The second story is that of the carver’s grandchildren – his granddaughter, who loses her fiancée in the First World War, and his grandson, who loses a leg in the First World War.  it’s a strange sort of war story, because the rest of the village isn’t involved: all the other young men claim exemption because they’re agricultural workers, and many of them feel ambiguous about it because of their German heritage.  The grandchildren both struggle to move on with their lives until, years later, they both go over to France to work on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.  These two characters aren’t real, but the building of the memorial obviously is.  It took years and years, far longer than the construction of any of the other Great War memorials did: it wasn’t officially unveiled until 1936.  After the completion of the memorial, both the man and the woman, who both find partners whilst involved in the work, are able to move on and find happiness.

Two fascinating stories, and the title itself, “The Stone Carvers”, links the two; but I can’t help feeling that they’d have been better off told in two different books, or at least as part 1 and part 2 rather than the flicking backwards and forwards that goes on for much of the book.  However, that’s just me – obviously other people don’t agree, because the book was long-listed for the Booker Prize.  There’s some wonderful writing in it, anyway, and I’ve got another book by the same author and am looking forward to reading it.


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