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.
I feel like I’ve just been hit by a truck—this book blindsided me and despite the impact, I adore it. This may be because it ticks so many of my personal boxes, but I’ve been wandering the house since I finished it, ploughing my way through laundry, dinner, dishes, trying desperately to find my footing again, while I’m processing.
Within the first few pages of the book, Katherine’s parents are killed in a car accident, sending the four children on a confusing, agonizing struggle to put their lives back together again. Katherine is only seven years old—I was 34 when it happened to me, and my life was blown apart and has never fully recovered.
“You make it sound like it was centuries ago,” Daniel said. “If you parents died when you were seven, it’s barely twenty years.”
“It feels like centuries,” I said.
Lawson nails it with that tiny bit of dialog. Although it’s been 18 years since my parents’ car accident, some days it feels like yesterday—other days it feels like I never had parents. And I completely relate to Katherine’s numbness, the reluctance to feel anything about anyone—if you care, there’s a good chance that they will get yanked away from you. Not caring seems like your only defence against heart wrenching pain. The only problem is that is doesn’t work. People like Katherine’s boyfriend Daniel worm their way into your life and you reluctantly begin to care about them, all the while struggling to see them as temporary and frustrating the hell out of them, as they wonder what is wrong with you.
I clearly remember the day that I put my emotions on ice—it was about a year and a half after the funerals and I remember thinking, “I’m so tired of crying.” So I quit. It has taken years to thaw that permafrost and I’m still unsure that the process is finished. Still a bit freezer-burned, I guess.
It’s taken me eighteen years, but I’ve finally been able to engage with my family again—they’ve been very patient, they waited and I’ve been accepted back without reservation. Knowing this makes me love them fiercely—after being emotionally frozen for so many years, the strength of that love surprises me on each and every occasion that I spend time with them.
I also have a farm background like Katherine and used university as a way to do something different—I even started my university career as a biology major until I was seduced by so many other interesting subjects and wandered away into the arts and social sciences. But I have so many fond memories of wandering the coulees of home, identifying wild flowers, scooping snails out of the pond, and studying the ground squirrels as I emulated my personal idol, Jane Goodall [chimpanzees were in short supply, but ground squirrels were plentiful on the prairies].
So I may have been predisposed to love this book—still, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is worth more than 5 stars to me.