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13th January
written by Steph
Crow Lake

I picked up this book on my first trip to Chicago, back in May.  Tony was at a conference, and I spent a couple of hours in this wonderful used bookstore that had an amazing selection.  Crow Lake had been on their shelves for over a year, so I wound up getting an additional discount off of the price.  It isn’t the type of book I would normally see myself picking up and reading, but the description on the back struck me and I decided to give it a whirl. Crow Lake is about the Morrison family hailing from rural, northern Ontario, Canada, and is told from the perspective of Kate, the third child.  She has two older brothers, Luke and Matt, and a younger sister named Bo.  The tale is told both in the present day (which I feel was really the 1980s), predominantly focusing on Kate’s current relationship with a fellow faculty member in the Zoology department, as well as in retrospect.  Specifically, Kate focuses on the time in her childhood when her parents are killed in a car crash, and how this tragedy ripples through the family and affects herself and her siblings.  The back cover of the book also ominously hints at an imbroglio that ties the Morrison and neighboring troubled Pye family together, and Kate dutifully mentions a dovetailing of the two families is impending through much of her narrative. By and large I found the narrative of Crow Lake to be quiet and placid, despite the heartbreaking trials and tribulations faced by the Morrisons.  For the majority of the novel, I felt pretty impartial about what I was reading, occasionally experiencing a twinge of anger towards present-day Kate.  I accept that someone who loses her parents at such a young age is likely to have baggage, but more often than not I feel like people need to take responsibility for and ownership of their problems.  Apart from this however, I was pretty neutral about the whole thing.  And then, about three quarters through the story, these sentences would pop up that were not necessarily beautiful or breathtaking in their prose, but were just incredibly piercing in terms of the emotional weight they carried.  There was an emotional truth to them that I connected with and which really allowed the story to shine.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that any of the events that occur throughout the novel are ever very surprising, and the Pye storyline is pretty obvious from the get-go, I would say, but despite all of this, I would say that the reason why Crow Lake ultimately succeeds is because it stems from a place that is honest and that honesty ripples throughout the story and makes up for a somewhat uninspired plot.  I would say that given how obvious the culmination of the Pye storyline is, that given all of the heavy-handed discussion of it (e.g., things along the lines of "Little did I realize that the Pye's story would soon become our own...") for the large part of the novel, the actual resolution is really anti-climactic and hardly that big of a deal.  Then again, maybe this was what Lawson had in mind, since most of the weight of the Pye story rests solely in Kate's mind... Crow Lake is a story about sacrifice and loss, education, striving for something better, and of course, love.  But it is also about coming to understand that bad things will happen, but it is up to us to determine just how much we allow these inevitable tragedies to shape us and define our lives.  It is a really quick read, the prose is smooth and effortless to read, but don’t let this mask the weight of the story.  Certain themes and ideas in Crow Lake weighed heavily on me as I read, and I was nearly brought to tears at one point.  The novel ends on a note of hope, but I can’t say I was left feeling happy.  For all its quietness, there is real power here; perhaps it is the simplest stories that impart the most truth to a reader. If you’re looking for a novel that offers contemplation but is also paradoxically quick in its reading, I highly recommend Crow Lake.  I look forward to reading more by Mary Lawson (I’ve heard her second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, is even better); I get a very strong Steinbeckian vibe from her, so if he’s an author you dig, you might like her too. Rating: 4 out of 5


  1. alatus

    i agree with your review and it is very well-written. i’ve read both mary lawson’s novels and i love them both. like you say, it’s hard to sell the books, especially CL, on plot alone. The honesty and raw emotion only come through if and when they are picked up and read, best in one sitting. :]

  2. 01/15/2009

    Man alive, you are reading a lot lately, woman! Another one for the book list!

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