Thursday, 10 April 2014

Black Lake, by Johanna Lane

Dulough (Black Lake, in English), a rundown estate on the exposed and craggy northwest coast of Ireland has been owned by the Campbell family for over 150 years. Built to be intimidating and spectacular but in keeping with Presbyterian ideals by the tyrannical Philip the First, it has divided opinion throughout the family's history. Some would be heirs have despised the property, so it has found its way to more loving hands through the generations, to owners that could never imagine living anywhere else. Current owner John Campbell is of the latter category, his brother Philip is of the former.

John lives at Dunogugh with his Dublin-born wife Marianne and their two children, Kate and Philip. Their lifestyle is isolated, somewhat shabby, but husband and wife are utterly devoted to the estate. With the estate in financial trouble and the maintenance cost of the house and grounds soaring, John has decided to enter into agreement with the Irish government, opening the house to the public. He and his family move to a damp and unappealing cottage on the estate and are as good as barred from the 'big house' during tourist season. They still own it though. Just.

The virtual loss of the house affects the family deeply- particularly Marianne and Philip. John retains his study at the big house, but Marianne is at a loss to explain what he does all day, shut away by himself. Struggling to cope with their change of lifestyle and preoccupied with the crowds and obligations of opening day, a tragic accident occurs fueled by change and confusion. Already paper thin relationships are pushed to the absolute limit.

Philip, absent at the story's start is perhaps the novel's most interesting character. Dragged from his bed by the removal men, he struggles to make the transition from the big house to the cottage, escaping every day to build his own space- an isolated den on an outlying island, among the graves of his ancestors. He's cheeky and independent, and the chapters that he narrates have a brilliant insight into childhood and the triumphs and tragedies that make up the life of the under 10s. He demonstrates how important personal space, solitude and legacy are, even to children. 

Black Lake begins slowly, starting at the end and tracking back to the key events that led up to those opening scenes. The story unfolds through the alternating  voices of John, Marianne and Philip, and the reader is increasingly drawn into the lives of the family, learning of the emotions and pain that they keep hidden. Marianne talks of hers and John's courtship and marriage, their ever more distant friends and her concern for her boarding school educated daughter, who does not get a chance to narrate her own piece. 

It's a moving story, well told in delicate and intricately constructed layers and in a very elegant style. The sense of foreboding is strong, leading up to the accident and the repercussions wrought on the family. Lane brings the damp and rugged majesty of Dulogugh to life and evokes the connection between person and place very successfully.

Black Lake by Johanna Lane is published by Tinder Press, and is out in May 2014. Thanks to @FrancesGough at Headline for the review copy.

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