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book review
  • Title: A Town Called Solace
  • Author: Mary Lawson
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • Pages: 304

Mary Lawson’s fourth novel begins with a crisis: In a small Northern Ontario town in the early 1970s, rebellious 16-year-old Rose, after another screaming fight with her mother, has finally made good on her threat to run away. When, after a couple of weeks passes, police as far as Toronto still have no leads, worst-case scenarios are conjured. Solace, so far, has not lived up to its name.

Rose’s disappearance, though, is just the hook. What Lawson aims to explore here is family, especially mothers, and the ways – to bastardize Larkin’s famous phrase – they can mess you up. On the flipside, it’s clear that wanting to be a mother, but not being able to, can mess you up too.

The pivot point for all this is Liam Kane, a thirtysomething man from Toronto who’s arrived in Solace having learned he’s the sole inheritor of the house and estate of a deceased elderly widow named Elizabeth Orchard. The timing is auspicious – Liam is in the midst of his own crisis, his recent divorce having made him realize he also hates his job as an accountant, which he’s quit. He has only vague memories of his benefactor, who was briefly his neighbour when he lived in Guelph as a child. Though he and Elizabeth exchanged the odd letter as adults, he failed to infer from the correspondence the outsized role he clearly once played in her life.

Author Mary Lawson sits by the table where she writes in Kingston upon Thames, London, Oct. 22, 2013.For The Globe and Mail

The novel rotates through Clara, Liam and Elizabeth’s perspectives using a kind of narratorial backstitch, every change of narrator pulling us back slightly in time before catching up to the present moment again. Each protagonist is also uniquely isolated: Liam, because he’s a stranger in Solace, and isn’t all that interested in changing this; Elizabeth, because she’s alone in the hospital with what will turn out to be a terminal heart problem; and Clara because she’s a child of seven with a tentative grasp of the adult world and a tendency toward magical thinking (Rose will return, for example, only if she keeps vigil by the window).

Ensconced in Elizabeth’s dank old house, now his own, Liam suffers a kind of existential inertia: Should he sell? Leave? Look for another job? He starts measuring out his life in burgers and fries – the only dish served at the town’s only diner, where he eats every night. An yet soon enough, through some gentle, Schitt’s Creek-style situational humour, the town begins to move in on Liam. The man Liam hires to fix his bathroom, for example, somehow conscripts him as an unpaid assistant, while the local cop invites him over for some locally made ice cream, which is so hard they’re forced to extract it with a chisel.

For Clara, however, who’s caring for Mrs. Orchard’s cat while she’s in hospital – a welcome distraction from the gloom back home – Liam presents as a mysterious, unwelcome intruder. In the misguided manner of adults, her parents have neglected to tell her that Mrs. Orchard has died, thus adding another layer of pain to her confused existence.

As Clara and Liam circle each other, Elizabeth, through flashbacks, fills in the details of her connection to Liam. (Elizabeth’s sections are often addressed to her late husband, Charles, in the second person – always a difficult voice to pull off, it’s the only time the novel feels forced.) When Liam’s family had moved in next door, Elizabeth had initially reacted with blind jealousy. Childless and depressed after multiple miscarriages, it seemed she was now to be tortured with the spectre of grotesque fertility: In addition to Liam and his twin sisters, his mother, Annette, would soon be pregnant with another set.

And yet in Annette’s obvious exhaustion and stark favouritism towards her daughters, Elizabeth spotted an opportunity. Indeed, when she’d offered to ease her neighbour’s burden by taking Liam – overnight, no problem! – Annette had gratefully accepted, oblivious to the borderline-inappropriate maternal role-playing taking place right next door. But the happiest time in Elizabeth’s life would end abruptly when Liam’s family moved to Calgary, where he resumed his unhappy childhood in a hostile, female-dominated household. Is Liam’s decision not to have children of his own related to his estrangement from his mother, or to his controlling, self-involved ex-wife? It’s possible. People are complicated.

Though Mary Lawson moved to the U.K. decades ago, the setting of her novels (which include bestsellers Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge) – the rural Ontario of her youth – and her interest in the machinations of the human psyche have stayed constant. Ditto for her consciously unshowy prose and emotional acuity.

A Town Called Solace is, like its predecessors, a nuanced, probing novel – one that asks what it is to be family, to be valued; and whether there’s a difference between the two. In a scene where Liam discovers a trove of his childhood artwork amidst Elizabeth’s belongings, Lawson hints at an answer. His mother had always dismissed his creative endeavours, so Liam finds his attention drawn less to the pictures themselves than to the “crisp, fragile remains” of the tape at their corners – yellowed testament to the pride of place they once held on someone’s wall.

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