I came across this author by chance having seen another of her books reviewed and after a period of not reading, her novel(s) sounded like something I’d quite enjoy as a way back in to reading. There were comparisons made to Anne Tyler, of whom I’ve read and reviewed a couple of novels here Ladder of Years and A Blue Spool of Thread, however having now finished I would say this offers much more beneath the surface of plot.
What I wasn’t expecting was to then see this novel long listed for the Booker Prize a short while after I requested it. Doubly intrigued, as this is the only book on that list I have, I began to read.
I loved it.
Not only was it the good choice I had expected for my own personal reasons, it exceeded my expectations in so many ways.
The title is both intriguing and promising and the cover, the way it zooms in on the house in a way that shows little else around it, is such an apt metaphor for the three lives it focuses on, those three windows into their worlds, and the three time sequences it immerses in to portray them.
A character driven mystery that explores boundaries and trust, the characters and their voices are superbly portrayed, they are like closeups, snapshots of little action, complex inner worlds, all of whom have been tilted in some way and are in the process of finding their upright, their wings even; yet there is a clear, interlinked story that ties them together keeping the reader engaged and the plot moving forward at a good pace.
I came to think of these three characters, Mrs Orchard (Elisabeth), the grown up child and previous neighbour of Mrs Orchard, now adult (Liam), and 8 year old current neighbour of Mrs Orchard (Clara), as depicting narratives of past, present and future, that overlap.
When the story begins we meet Clara standing at the window of her house, watching obsessively, waiting for her sister Rose (16) who has run away from home. She is waiting for any sign of her return and is disturbed to see a strange man carrying boxes into Mrs Orchards home next door.
The Inner Journey (Anti-hero)
Rose having gone missing may appear to some as the central drama, however each of the three characters are embarking on their own inner quest that this drama brings to light. Rose and her parents are not central characters, and the mystery of Rose’s disappearance is not allowed to take over the narrative.
This may prove to frustrate some, so tuned in are we to the more dramatic story pushing in to take centre stage. Here, the larger than life character, though involved in the more dangerous narrative, is made into a secondary character, kept at a distant. It’s the Penelope versus Odyseuss dynamic again, as recently depicted in Brenda Lozano’s excellent Loop.
More than disturbed, Clara is anxious because she has the keys to the house to enable her to feed the cat Moses while Mrs Orchard is in hospital. She’d promised she wouldn’t be gone long. Through Clara’s perspective we observe how confusing childhood can be when adults put so much effort into lying and withholding truth from them. In reality, they are extra sensitive to everything outside of and beyond words, cues that enable them to feel truths, therefore making them mistrust adults, whose words deny their truth.
But she had been away long, she’d been away weeks and weeks. Clara had run out of cat food several times and had to ask her mother for money so that she could go and buy some more. (This was before Rose disappeared, when everything was normal and Clara could go wherever she liked.) She’d expected Mrs Orchard to be more reliable, and was disappointed in her. Adults in general were less reliable than they should be, in Clara’s opinion, but she’d thought Mrs Orchard was an exception.
The Lying Life of Adults
Clara doesn’t know this yet, but Liam remembers what it was like to be that child and he is the one adult who doesn’t lie to her. But in order to gain her trust, he will be required to step outside his own comfort zone and finds himself getting involved in a community and the lives of people he had no intention of knowing. In the midst of his own mid-life crisis, this unexpected event had given him a welcome distraction, however he had planned to stay 2 weeks and leave.
By six in the evening, nightmarish northern roads notwithstanding, he was walking up the steps of Mrs Orchard’s porch, with Toronto, his career and his marriage behind him.
And now, not much more than twelve hours later, somewhat dazed and very short of sleep, he was sitting in a strange house, which he happened to own, trying to explain it all to a cop.
In an entertaining subplot to his story, his effort to fix a leaking pipe under a sink miraculously leads to him to become the builder’s labourer, in on of those familiar scenarios of “well in order to fix that, first we’re going to have to fix the roof and unfortunately…”
‘How much is all this going to cost?’
‘Materials and labour. Biggest cost is labour, but with you working for free I’ll knock a third off that.’
Liam’s narrative happens ahead of Mrs Orchard’s and Clara’s narrative occurs ahead of Liam’s. It is so subtle and yet so clever as it creates a kind of mystery within the individual story of each character. So we sometimes read of the same event later from a different perspective.
Elisabeth is in hospital (in the past because in the present we know she has already passed away) and her narrative uses the second person (You) as she is speaking to her dead husband (of many years now), who is very present for her, a sign to the reader of how close to her own passing is likely to be. As she speaks to her husband, she is recalling a period many years ago when the boy Liam lived next door with his family. Little clues drop indicating that something happened, something only Elisabeth now remembers.
Times without number I have asked myself how it could have come to that. Now, from a distance thirty years I can see the answer clearly: little by little.
The writing is superb and atmospheric, the structure is sophisticated and yet flows with ease you could read this and be completely unaware of it. The individual voices of the characters are pitch perfect and atmosphere created, remarkable. The drama is understated yet palpable and the mundane slowly gets filled with intrigue and curiosity was the layers are revealed. And it made me laugh out loud – often, little surprises and a fabulous last laugh for the closing scene.
I don’t know if this will make the shortlist but I totally understand why it has been nominated. I’m excited to read more of her work, because this was brilliant.
Mary Lawson, Author
Mary Lawson was born and brought up in a small farming community in southwestern Ontario and moved to England after graduating from McGill University with a degree in psychology.
She is the author of three previous nationally and internationally bestselling novels, Crow Lake, The Other Side of the Bridge, and Road Ends. Crow Lake was a New York Times bestseller and was chosen as a Book of the Year by The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. The Other Side of the Bridge was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
Q & A Interview: In conversation with novelist Mary Lawson by Kobo
Video Interview: Reader Meets Writer, Wiley Cash interviews Mary Lawson on A Town Called Solace
N.B. Thank you kindly to the publisher Random House UK for providing a copy for review via Netgalley.