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.
About the Author
Mary Lawson was born and brought up in a farming community in southwestern Ontario. A distant relative of L. M. Montgomery (author of Anne of Green Gables), she moved to England in 1968, and now lives with her husband in Surrey. She returns to Canada every year. Asked on "CBC's This Morning "what she misses most about Canada, she says without hesitation that it's the rocks of the Canadian Shield. England has rocks, she says, but they are not smooth and rounded and "whale-like."
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.
"A finely crafted debut ... conveys an astonishing intensity of emotion, almost Proustian in its sense of loss and regret."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“The assurance with which Mary Lawson handles both reflection and violence makes her a writer to read and watch … has a resonance at once witty and poignant.”—New York Times Book Review
“Crow Lake is the kind of book that keeps you reading well past midnight; you grieve when it’s over. Then you start pressing it on friends.”—Washington Post Book World
“A touching meditation on the power of loyalty and loss, on the ways in which we pay our debts and settle old scores, and on what it means to love, to accept, to succeed—and to negotiate fate’s obstacle courses.”—People
“Lawson’s tight focus on the emotional and moral effects of a drastic turn of events on a small human group has its closest contemporary analogue in the novels of Ian McEwan.”—Toronto Star