April 18, 2007

BOOKS: Crow Lake, Mary Lawson (2002)

Kate Morrison is a zoologist, teaching at a university in Toronto, a full day's drive from her childhood home in northern Ontario. She's invited home for her nephew's 18th birthday party, an invitation which stirs mixed feelings. As Kate narrates the events of the year when she was seven, we learn the history of the Morrison siblings.

Kate's parents were killed in a car crash that year, and she and her younger sister, Bo, were left in the care of their older brothers, Luke and Matt; at 19 and 17, the boys were barely old enough to take care of themselves, much less of two small children. Everyone's plans were changed by that car crash, and Crow Lake is principally concerned with the slow revelation of how those plans were changed, how the siblings resent one another for those changes, and how they've spent the last twenty years misunderstanding one another's motives and feelings.

And I do mean slow. This is a book where very little happens, and it takes forever for it not to happen. It's also a book in which the narrator and author withhold information from us, encouraging us to misunderstand things just as badly as the characters do.

Yet there is much to admire here. Lawson's characters, even the supporting ones, are vivid and fully realized. I was particularly fond of Mrs. Stanovich, the most aggressively helpful of the neighbor ladies; she is part of Lawson's perfect understanding of the occasionally oppressive nature of small-town community. The relationships among the Morrison siblings are convincing, and Kate's hero-worship of big brother Matt feels precisely right.

But in the end, whatever surprises are to be found in the story derive from Kate's willfully not telling us everything she knows, and omitting crucial details at key points along the way. I found it a frustrating reading experience, and when it was over, I thought that a more straightforward, direct narration could have boiled the whole thing down into a really fine short story. I certainly look forward to Lawson's next book, but I hope it doesn't work so hard to generate phony suspense.

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