By Mary Lawson
(Dial Press, Paperback, 9780385337632, 324pp.)
Publication Date: August 31, 2005
List Price: $15.00*
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Crow Lake is that rare find, a first novel so quietly assured, so emotionally pitch perfect, you know from the opening page that this is the real thing—a literary experience in which to lose yourself, by an author of immense talent.
Here is a gorgeous, slow-burning story set in the rural “badlands” of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape. For the farming Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, and terrible events occur—offstage.
Centerstage are the Morrisons, whose tragedy looks more immediate if less brutal, but is, in reality, insidious and divisive. Orphaned young, Kate Morrison was her older brother Matt’s protegee, her fascination for pond life fed by his passionate interest in the natural world. Now a zoologist, she can identify organisms under a microscope but seems blind to the state of her own emotional life. And she thinks she’s outgrown her siblings—Luke, Matt, and Bo—who were once her entire world.
In this universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harbored and driven underground, Lawson ratchets up the tension with heartbreaking humor and consummate control, continually overturning one’s expectations right to the very end. Tragic, funny, unforgettable, Crow Lake is a quiet tour de force that will catapult Mary Lawson to the forefront of fiction writers today.
Lawson is a firm believer in the strength of the influences we receive as children, a theme explored in the book. Lawson's father was a research chemist for an oil company in Sarnia, Ontario, and the family lived in Blackwell, which was then a small farming community -- though not nearly as remote as that of Crow Lake -- and spent summers at a cottage up north.
She studied psychology at McGill University in Montreal in the mid-sixties, and says that Montreal was an eye-opening experience after growing up in Blackwell. "We had the radio, but we had no television, and relative to what kids know today ... they are just so much more knowledgeable than we were." She graduated in 1968 and went to England, finding work in a steel-industry research lab in London, which is where she met her husband, Richard.
Published under the "New Face of Fiction" program at age 55, Lawson calls herself a "late starter," though she began writing when her sons were small. She joined a creative-writing class, which she continues to attend, mainly for the companionship, and she took literature courses to study other writers. She describes the first novel she wrote, which was set in England, as a disaster: though it was a goodstory with characters and plot, she didn't know what she wanted to say. "It was a story without a point."
Then her parents fell ill with cancer, and she spent a lot of time in Canada. She started writing "Crow Lake" shortly after the double trauma of her parents dying and her sons leaving home. "I was thinking a lot about the passing of time and different types of loss and the importance of family and the significance of childhood. I think you are particularly receptive when you are a kid, and you take in not just the physical landscape, but the society and the culture and what matters to people. And it all just sits there -- eventually, if you are a writer, it comes out."
At length, a short story she wrote in the 1980s for "Woman's Realm "magazine in England was transformed into Crow Lake. She sent the manuscript out several times before it found the right agent, who then responded enthusiastically within twenty-four hours. The characters in the novel are entirely invented, with the exception of the baby, Bo, who was modelled closely on her own little sister. She was interested in exploring the brother-sister relationship and the notion that family members establish roles for one another which are hard to break free from ("In my family...I'm the 'Emoter'," she notes). In particular, she wanted to look at hero worship and what happens "to the worshipper and to the hero" when the hero fails. While indebted to J. D. Salinger for pointing her towards using children as a subject, and to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for the technique of writing a book with a child as narrator, Lawson says it was having her own children that taught her that people are born as individuals.
With its powerful emotional resonance, Crow Lake" "has already won the hearts of many readers, and Lawson's next novel will be anxiously awaited.