Book of the Month Club: Black Lake by Johanna Lane

Mona Lisait. Latin Quarter. Photo Laura Dumitriu. Mona Lisait. Latin Quarter. Photo Laura Dumitriu.

We move about the vast room. I hold [Katherine] closer and closer and when I forget to sing, we lose the rhythm of our steps. Soon our dance is only a series of hushed lurches left and right, backwards and forwards, until we stop altogether and stand in the middle of the room, still.

Black Lake’s beginning is its end: in a confusing prologue, “the mother”, “the girl”, and “the father” clash, a final stand as the mother’s extreme withdrawal from both society and her family finally comes to a boiling point in the family. The daughter, taken by the mother from a boarding school, lives secluded with her mother in an upper room in an old castle. Her father decides enough is enough and comes with the authorities and the mother’s parents to take them both to safety, and to save the mother from herself. But as the story unfolds, things become clearer. This isn’t a book with much action; the most action is in fact in the prologue. Rather, this is a book bent on figuring out how this family got to be the way it was.

Loss and sadness is prevalent in the book, and it is palpable in its later sections. The two children, Katherine and Philip, are stuck in the middle of a family that is already teetering under simmering, old grievances of their parents and the family’s financial struggles. The latter causes the father to move out of Dulough, the family mansion, to the small caretaker’s cottage, and open Dulough up to the public for tours. The move causes the family to start becoming restless.

One of the more well done things in this book are the children. Lane knows how to write a child’s perspective. Philip is a curious and charming, if not mischievous eight year old boy (then again, what boy isn’t at that age?). Katherine does her best, with her brother, to be “grown up” at twelve. It is interesting to see Philip’s perspective as the first wave of visitors walk through Dulough, while Philip tries to play with his train set with a fellow visitor’s child.

At the same time, there were many problems with the book. The tragedy that unleashes all the havoc in the family was easy to spot long before it happened, and when it did happen, was left ambiguous until a later section. The story gives each member of the family a chance to speak, but this makes the narrative choppy. When the wife, Marianne, finally gets her chance to speak, her writing jumps from a first-person narrative to the story of a previous resident of the house, retold by Marianne as she reads the resident’s diary.

While the characters of the main story are definitely interesting and important, from the snippets of the prior residents of Dulough, I felt that the real story could have been told in a linear way that covered both the prior residents and the current residents in a fuller manner: most of the character development, even Philip’s, just doesn’t seem there yet. Marianne’s spiral towards her utter withdrawal and apathy, arguably the most important part of the book that leads towards its ending, seemed sudden and ill-prepared. I would have also liked to hear more from Katherine, but her point of view seems to have been confined to the first pages.

Black Lake seems to be Lane’s first effort at novel writing, and it’s nevertheless a good start. Worth a quick look.