Reading guide for A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart

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A Map of Glass

by Jane Urquhart

A Map of Glass
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2006, 375 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2007, 375 pages

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Jane Urquhart doesn't title individual chapters, instead she divides her novel into three large sections: "The Revelations"; "The Bog Commissioners"; "A Map of Glass". Look at each of these sections and discuss why it is given that particular title. The name of the second section, "The Bog Commissioners," is at first mysterious because Joseph Woodman only stayed in Ireland as a bog commissioner for less than half a year. But something of the mentality or attitude he demonstrates in Ireland travels with him to Canada, and it informs other characters too. What is that attitude, and how does it play out in the novel? When discussing the name of the last section, "A Map of Glass," also consider why Urquhart chose that as the title of the book.
  2. The epigraph of the novel tells us that the "logical, two dimensional picture" provided by a diagram, plan, or map "rarely looks like the thing it stands for." Which characters make maps or diagrams? What function do they serve? How do they relate to some of the book's central concerns? What makes a "true" map?
  3. In the short preface [pp. 1-5], where we meet Andrew walking in the snow as an older man, he ruminates on many of the novel's important themes and ends by saying, "I have lost everything." Now that you've finished the novel, re-read the preface and identify the issues, and even the words, that will dominate and unify the book.
  4. Renaissance poets and playwrights were obsessed with what they called Mutability, or change. So is Jane Urquhart, who broods in most of her novels over a lost, pristine landscape and the smaller, more human settlements of the nineteeth century. Change is the central theme in A Map of Glass, affecting everything from forests and shorelines to human memory. List some of the irrevocable changes detailed in the book. What are some of the natural symbols Urquhart uses to underscore this theme? What is the relationship in the book between human arrogance and change? What are some of the ways characters try to arrest change, or record what is passing? Is change ever seen as good in the novel?
  5. Sylvia is the character who most thoroughly resists change. What are some of the methods she devises to keep her world as stable as she can manage? Do you feel Urquhart is critical of Sylvia's strategies and eccentricities, seeing them as symptomatic of illness, or to some extent does she approve of them?
  6. One of Sylvia's mementoes of Andrew is his book, The Relations of History and Geography. How do history and geography interact in A Map of Glass?
  7. Malcolm thinks of Sylvia largely, if not primarily, as a patient, although the exact nature of her problem is never identified. How would you write Sylvia's case history?
  8. The idea of "the elusive man" figures prominently in all of Jane Urquhart's novels. The beloved is somehow emotionally or physically unavailable, whether it is because he dies, he's married, he has a vocation or mission more compelling than the relationship, or he's ambivalent in some other way. How do Andrew and Jerome fit into this recurring theme?
  9. With the exception of A Map of Glass and her earlier novel Changing Heaven, Jane Urquhart has not written about the late-twentieth-century or early-twenty-first-century world. How does the use of two time frames, nineteenth century and contemporary, enrich her themes in A Map of Glass? Do you discern any differences in the two time frames? For example, in terms of the psychological reality, the use of dialogue, the narrative voice? Do you have a preference for the contemporary or nineteenth-century sections?
  10. Sylvia asks her friend Julia, "What is the difference, really, between touch and collision?" [p. 70]. Characters in A Map of Glass are powerfully affected by touch. Most obviously, Sylvia fears being touched. How do the two men in her life react to that? Who else reacts strongly to touch?
  11. Annabelle thinks she and Marie are two sides of a complete self. How so?
  12. Several characters in A Map of Glass are visual artists, whether they know it or not — Annabelle, Bran, Jerome, Mira, and Joseph Woodman. When Sylvia tells Jerome about the tactile maps she makes for her blind friend Julia, he tells her that she, too, is making art. Some art fixes something real or imagined into permanence or semi-permanence; other art, like Mira's performance work, is transitory. Discuss the different kinds of art and artists in the book. How do they echo or illuminate some of the novel's concerns.
  13. What role does money play in this novel?
  14. In many ways, Mira is one of the novel's most "adjusted" characters. Discuss some of the ways Mira's life — personal and professional — is a success, and how this sheds light on some of the other characters' lives. Do you like her? How does her art of making "swaddles" reflect her personality?
  15. After he finishes reading Andrew's journals, Jerome remarks that "maybe landscape — place — makes people more knowable. Or it did, in the past" [p. 336]. How do various characters in the novel exemplify this idea? In A Map of Glass, landscape or a strong sense of place can be an imprisoning force; with other characters, it is a source of safety or freedom. Discuss the main characters' reaction to their present or remembered landscape.
  16. Malcolm is described as having made Sylvia "in her natural habitat" — the house and the County in which she has always lived — his life's work. Why does he do that? How successful is his life's work? Do you find him a sympathetic character?
  17. In the same period that he discovers the body of Andrew, which ultimately leads to his relationship with Sylvia, Jerome befriends and domesticates the cat Swimmer. Are there resemblances between Sylvia and Swimmer?
  18. One of the interesting questions that can be asked about a character is: Does he or she learn something significant in the course of the novel, or otherwise evolve? Which characters in A Map of Glass are different at the end of the novel, and how? Which ones remain unchanged?
  19. Although one of the points of this novel is, as Sylvia tells Jerome, that "all life is an exercise in forgetting" [p. 367], stories are one way to keep the past alive. Discuss some of the stories remembered, recorded, read, and told in the book, and the ways in which they echo or deepen the story. How does the memory of a particular story and its reader bring both joy and sorrow to Jerome at the end of the novel?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of MacAdam/Cage Publishing. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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