What is it about Canada? Many of the writers I hold dear are from Up There, including Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, and Glenn Gould --- who, a genius at more than the piano, explored in a series of radio programs what he called "the idea of north." They are ruthless in their quiet way: imagination wrapped in common sense. They come from a part of the world that is colder and more remote than mine, and their sense of place is always acute and memorable. Whether Mary Lawson will do as well, I don't know, but this novel is a promising start. "Our house was the last in Crow Lake and a fair way out," says the narrator, Kate Morrison, a refugee from the Canadian hinterlands; "beyond it there was about three thousand miles of nothing and then the North Pole."
CROW LAKE begins with a sentence that thrilled me down to my literature-loving bones: "My great-grandmother Morrison fixed a book rest to her spinning wheel so that she could read while she was spinning, or so the story goes." This effort to marry the work of the hands and the work of the mind is the idea that dominates the family, and the story. Throughout, there is a tension between town and country, between cultivation (higher learning, a professional career) and subsistence (minimal schooling, rural poverty, lifelong agricultural work). The characters' moral and psychological struggles have to do with seizing or sacrificing a chance for education (read: escape) and with the distance between those who have left the land and those who have stayed.
That distance, for Kate, now a university professor and researcher, is 400 miles, but the emotional divide is far greater: "My horizons were expanding," she recalls of her college years, "and Crow Lake seemed to shrink to the tiny insignificant dot that it appeared to be on the map." Kate feels so separate from her family back home "that I couldn't imagine that we had anything left in common at all." (The book, as first novels so often are, seems at least partly autographical: Lawson, the jacket copy tells us, was raised in an Ontario farming community, graduated from McGill University, and now lives in England.)
Yet Kate's intellectual passion --- she is a zoologist specializing in invertebrate ecology --- originates in Crow Lake, where her older brother Matt blinded her with science on visits to "the ponds," old gravel pits filled with water and teeming with tadpoles, frogs, turtles, and other aquatic creatures. It is the beauty and intricacy of Nature According to Matt ("[He] saw that it was miraculous") that stirs Kate's imagination, and it is this kind, intense, brilliant man who is still lodged uncomfortably in her heart. Although a dazzling researcher, she is a novice when it comes to feelings ("Thou Shalt Not Emote," she jokes, is the Eleventh Commandment in the Morrison family), in particular the demands of a relationship with her boyfriend, Daniel, the smart, city-born son of academics. We start to see why as Kate takes us into her past.
Orphaned at seven by their parents' death in an automobile accident, Kate and her baby sister, Bo, are raised by Matt, 17, and 19-year-old Luke, with the intervention, support, and sometimes just plain interference of some wonderfully imagined characters: Aunt Annie from the Gaspé Peninsula, who sets their chaotic house to rights; the local teacher, Miss Carrington; the ultrareligious and effusive Lily Stanovich; tactful, forceful Dr. Christopherson; old Miss Vernon, whose knowledge of the community goes back practically to its founding. Yes, Crow Lake rallies around the bereaved family, but don't think that this is one of those heartwarming three-hankie sagas. Kate's narrative voice is dry, sometimes sarcastic, never damply confessional. Bo is in no sense a cutie-pie --- she is all noise, energy, recalcitrance, thumb-sucking, and unholy mess. And the Pyes, a nearby farm family brutalized by an abusive father, provide a brooding, gothic presence, with portentous hints early on that their fate and the Morrisons' will be cruelly intertwined.
Those heavy-handed intimations of a dark secret are, unfortunately, a real shortcoming in an otherwise successful book. At first, the device is effective: Withholding information in the name of suspense is a time-honored technique and it certainly kept me reading. Once I got more than halfway through CROW LAKE, however, I became more frustrated than intrigued. The tension, artificially sustained by a narrative that continues to tease and evade and jump around chronologically like a pond frog, begins to feel manipulative; instead of adding to the momentum, it makes the book seem repetitive. When we finally learn the truth about the link between the two families, it isn't even all that shocking. And the second denouement --- wherein Kate and Daniel travel to Crow Lake for her nephew's 18th birthday and her long-held assumptions about Matt are forced to change --- is a bit too neat for my taste.
CROW LAKE is undoubtedly a fine debut. It often moved me. It has depth, texture, ideas. The structural problems feel like the result of inexperience rather than any lack of talent. Lawson is good enough that she doesn't need gimmicks. Next time, I think she could afford to tell her story straighter.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on February 26, 2002
- Publication Date: January 13, 2003
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback
- ISBN-10: 0385337639
- ISBN-13: 9780385337632