Review of A Town Called Solace, Alfred A. Knopf Canada (a division of Penguin Random House Canada) 2021, hardcover, 288 pages.
Reviewed by Debra Martens.
Crow Lake has its ponds, Road Ends has its snow and vicious cold, and A Town Called Solace has a cat called Moses in a fishbowl. Each of the three Mary Lawson novels that I’ve read have vivid descriptions that you remember long afterwards, but her most recent one is set more indoors than out. When Liam Kane inherits a house, he leaves Toronto for the (imaginary) town of Solace, close to New Liskeard and Cobalt (now amalgamated into Temiskaming Shores), where much of the action takes place inside, in his house or in the only open cafe in town, including an excruciating scene with Liam’s ex, and by the firesides of local residents of Solace who are kind enough to invite him in. And why not indoors? Liam is, after all, an urbanite from the south, come north for a few weeks of time off to collect himself, having quit his job and his lonely marriage, an anti-social man very much in need of solace.
The novel is rife with broken souls. In addition to Liam’s 1972 storyline, there is the first person narration of Elizabeth Orchard, in hospital in the weeks before Liam arrives, reflecting on her life, her marriage, and the events of 1942 – events for which Elizabeth wishes to make amends. But the novel opens from the third-person viewpoint of Liam’s neighbour, eight-year-old Clara Jordon. Clara at first regards Liam with suspicion, as she is unaware that Mrs Orchard has left her house to Liam, unaware that Mrs Orchard died about a week before Liam arrived, until he inadvertently tells her. This changes their relationship: until that moment, Clara was the neighbour girl feeding Mrs Orchard’s cat. After it, Clara is a child needing to trust an adult, because her own parents lie to her. For example, while her mother’s face is blotchy with crying, her father’s face “had a cheerful look pasted on like a mask that didn’t fit properly” (p. 15). Because they lied to her about Mrs Orchard, Clara is terrified that they are keeping from her the truth about her sixteen-year-old sister Rose, who disappeared two weeks before the novel opens.
Liam is not a happy man. He has relationship problems: he felt “as if there were a river, not wide but dark and deep, between himself and others, and he’d never figured out how to cross it” (p. 121). Moreover, “He hadn’t enjoyed being a child and couldn’t imagine enjoying being a father” (p. 119). Yet both Elizabeth and Clara give him slender logs with which he can begin to build a raft across his river. The gift from Elizabeth Orchard (ironic name for a childless couple) of her house and its contents is also a way back into his past, through memory triggers. He might not want to be a father, or even have a child visit him, but Clara literally makes him feel that “the past had been undone” (p. 127). Gradually, he wants to protect Clara’s trust; his desire to protect enables him to forbid his ex from entering his house and forces him to get involved in the hunt for Rose – to become involved in the community he finds himself in. Liam’s desire to protect Clara propels the 1972 plot forward.
Liam is not the first of Lawson’s characters trying to evade all human connection. This is the case with Tom Cartwright at the beginning of Road Ends (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2013). Tom’s friend hit a child with his car while driving drunk and afterwards killed himself while on an outing with Tom. For most of Road Ends, Tom’s daily goal is to avoid all human contact, but his four-year-old brother and Tom’s daily meal at the cafe in Struan soon put an end to that, as does time, the healer of emotions and the destroyer of things. A further parallel – Elizabeth Orchard, suffering from a series of miscarriages, finds temporary happiness from a four-year-old neighbour boy, Liam Kane; the full connection between Mrs Orchard and Liam is the bit of plot that cannot be revealed. In Crow Lake (Vintage Canada Edition 2003), the eldest of four orphaned children, Luke Morrison, finds purpose in caring for his siblings, particularly the almost two-year-old Bo. And I should add, a non-parallel: Tom’s father, Edward, was beaten by his father, and is in turn afraid of his anger towards his children, distancing himself from them and from his wife.
One of the pleasures of reading a group of novels back to back is discovering things I didn’t notice the first time round. Crow Lake takes place in farmland near Struan, and Road Ends takes place in the town of Struan. In a cafe in Struan, Tom meets Bo and Luke Morrison. Given that Bo is now 21 and Luke 39, this means Road Ends takes place 20 years after Crow Lake. In addition, Dr Christopherson is the kind doctor in all three novels. Further, this places the town of Solace near Struan, which also regards New Liskeard as its nearest city.
Ok, too much detail. All of which is to say: read any one of Mary Lawson’s novels. They are what you need right now — characters struggling out of personal tragedies in Canada’s near north. Dip into the pond with Kate and Matt, where there are “whirligigs spinning hysterically over the surface of the water” (Crow Lake, p. 5). Join Tom driving snowplough, “perched up high in the draughty, freezing cab, peering through the frosted windscreen, blinded by the flying snow, terrified of mowing someone down” (Road Ends, p. 32). Rediscover such turns of phrase as Elizabeth’s “shocking” roads and fears of being “an old nuisance” (Solace, p. 25). Watch Liam’s encounter with the waitress at the Hot Potato: “the look she gave him reminded him of a rattlesnake” (Solace, p. 88), while at his house, Moses the cat “was now corner-shaped” inside an empty box (Solace, p. 95).
Mary Lawson lives in the UK, in Kingston Upon Thames, and has done since 1968, when after graduating from McGill University, she left her home in Blackwell, Ontario (a farming community near Sarnia) for a holiday; she ran out of money, got a job, fell in love, and married. Yet, she is anxious to point out, in interviews and in her recent Maclean’s article, she returns to her family’s cottage in Northern Ontario annually, first with children, now with grandchildren. (Or will do once we are free of the pandemic.) As well, she returns there by setting her work in Northern Ontario. As she told Sarah Laing for The Globe and Mail last March, “Writing is an indulgence for me. I do it for pleasure, because when I’m writing, I’m there.”
I think Lawson’s best explanation of what it is like to live in two places comes from Liam’s thoughts on Toronto and Solace:
“..his life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs.
Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun. “ A Town Called Solace, p. 209.
Writing from Canada, after more than a year in lockdown, I can say that is precisely how it feels – the cities I once lived in, Jerusalem, London, Vienna, and even the city where I now live, seem faded, unreal, and dreamlike, until they burst upon me via the news.
A late bloomer, Mary Lawson published her first novel at 55. Crow Lake was a bestseller that won the Amazon First Novel Award and the McKitterick Prize, and was chosen as a Book of the Year by The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Globe and Mail. The Other Side of the Bridge, her second novel, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize; Road Ends, published to critical acclaim in 2014, was a top-ten bestseller and finalist for the Folio Prize. From its release this spring until the first week of May, A Town Called Solace was on The Globe and Mail‘s bestseller list.
Now 75, Lawson will be virtually in Canada this summer, talking about her novel at the Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story.
- “Mary Lawson: Why I write about the Canadian Shield”, Maclean’s Magazine, 16 February 2021.
- The Penguin Random House site includes Q&A with Lawson about writing Crow Lake.
- CBC’s The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers – March 20, 2021: Mary Lawson on A Town Called Solace.
- Interview with the books editor of the Toronto Star, Deborah Dundas, on March 12, 2021, Ottawa International Writers Festival Radio podcast “A Town Called Solace with Mary Lawson.”
- Society of Author’s McKitterick Prize.
- Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story.
- Sarah Laing, “Novelist Mary Lawson finds solace in knowing that home is where the heart is,” The Globe and Mail, 4 March 2021.
- The Temiskaming Speaker.