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A Town Called Solace: a slow burner with fire at its heart

Book review: Mary Lawson is an incisive chronicler of small-town life, writes John Boyne

A Town Called Solace
A Town Called Solace
Author: Mary Lawson
ISBN-13: 978-1784743925
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Guideline Price: £14.99

Canadian Mary Lawson may have flown a little under the radar since her first novel, Crow Lake, was published almost 20 years ago, but she deserves to reach a wider audience. From the beginning she’s proved herself an incisive chronicler of small-town life. Here, in her fourth book, she returns to her familiar northern Ontario landscape for a contemplative story about loss and regret, a slow-burn of a read with a fire at its heart.

The narrative is divided between three characters: the elderly Mrs Orchard, dying in hospital; thirtysomething Liam, to whom she has bequeathed her house; and seven-year-old Clara, the girl next door who is suffering from twin traumas – the disappearance of her elder sister Rose and the outrage she feels over this strange man taking up residence in her neighbour’s home.

We learn quickly that Mrs Orchard and her husband acted as surrogate parents to Liam when he was four but that something happened under their stewardship that led to the boy and his family moving away. So desperate was she to have a child of her own, however, that she has never forgotten her proxy son and, as she slips towards her final days, she recalls the events that led to their departure.

The town of Solace is so starved of excitement that the arrival of Liam, handsome, single and brooding over the breakdown of his marriage, inspires so much twitching of local curtains that a fair breeze must be felt around the streets. He’s desperate to be left alone but the locals are having none of it, leading to some amusing scenes detailing their meddlesome home invasions. If it’s not Clara breaking in to rearrange the ornaments just the way Mrs Orchard liked them, it’s police officers showing up to interrogate him about his intentions or tradesmen only agreeing to fix his roof if he’ll do most of the work himself.


Liam’s sense of isolation is well drawn, as is the pain he feels over his imminent divorce, and Lawson does well to steer away from cliche when a mutually suspicious relationship forms between him and Clara. The little girl does not help him rediscover his humanity, nor does she say cute things that endear her to him. If anything, he’s irritated by her presence but tries to be polite, and she is not looking for a helpful, avuncular presence next door. She simply wants him to leave everything where it has always been – she can accept no more upset in her life – and to feed the cat.

There are no great climactic moments in these pages, no catharses or mysteries to be solved, but authentic emotions spring from every sentence

But it’s Mrs Orchard who provides the emotional heart of the story. A loving relationship with her late husband, soured only by her inability to bear the child for which she longed, she is everything that Liam could want in a mother, particularly when his own proves so emotionally distant.

Anyone who has ever longed for parenthood will relate to her despair and her willingness to find someone who might soak up all the love that she has to give. When she goes too far, however, leading to an act that proves traumatic for all, it’s almost understandable but, it must be said, the consequences do ultimately seem a little disproportionate to the crime.

The background story of runaway Rose is handled with less assurance. It provides Clara with something extra to worry about, and the manner in which a series of messages are delivered between her and an older boy in high school is hilarious in its youthful complexity. But the subplot doesn’t bring a lot to the story, which is at its best when the focus is on the old lady leaving Solace, and the young man arriving. Its resolution seems hurried as well, which is a shame as the rest of novel moves at a perfect pace.

That said, Lawson’s work recalls for me that of another great Canadian novelist, Carol Shields, who was equally adept at writing about family life and the often difficult relationships between parents and children. There are no great climactic moments in these pages, no catharses or mysteries to be solved, but authentic emotions spring from every sentence. A Town Called Solace is filled with people living ordinary lives where, occasionally, a small earthquake upsets their balance.

In Mrs Orchard’s case, that earthquake arrived in the form of a little boy and the aftershock continued for decades afterwards, proving that a single moment and one bad decision can leave a shadow on a life that can be hard to shake off.

John Boyne’s latest novel is A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom, published by Doubleday

John Boyne

John Boyne

John Boyne, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic