Shaking the Family Tree

Emotionally absent parents continue to mark Mary Lawson’s characters.

In Mary Lawson’s new novel, Road Ends, the young but determined Megan Cartwright is the most hopeful of three unhappy protagonists. Having spent her childhood and adolescence looking after the many brothers that her maternity-addled mother and emotionally absent father were too preoccupied to care for themselves, she finally escapes Northern Ontario at the age of 21 and makes it to London in 1966.

Of course, Lawson herself was the one who got away. She grew up in a small farming community in southwestern Ontario but left for England many years ago. Having married an Englishman, she lives outside London but returns to Canada regularly—not only in person but more importantly, in her imagination, having created the fictional Northern Ontario town of Struan, the setting for her best-selling 2002 debut novel, Crow Lake, and both its successors. It is a return not only to the place of memory—the novels are largely set in the period of her youth in the 1960s—but also to the literature of the period. Crow Lake, The Other Side of the Bridge and now Road Ends have a lot in common with the novels that the term CanLit was invented to describe: they are small-scale stories of family tragedy filled with well-observed characters, telling domestic detail and isolated small-town settings, and they have won Lawson comparisons with Alice Munro and Carol Shields. When the Struan librarian is asked what books she would save from a fire, her answer is “everything ever written by Margaret Laurence.”

Were Lawson’s novels not admirably readable—her prose is always clear and sometimes crystalline—this peculiar reverse colonialism would be insufferable. As it is, the trilogy (not a series but rather novels in which barely glimpsed characters in one book turn out to be major characters in another) is growing repetitious: Road Ends is the third Lawson novel where the plot turns on a fatal car crash.

Once again, Lawson’s theme here is the obligation of family ties, especially between siblings. If the Morrisons of Crow Lake were literal orphans, their parents killed by a logging truck, the Cartwrights are psychic orphans, left to fend for themselves as their mother remains in her bedroom nursing the latest baby and their father remains in his study reading Roman history—when he is not working at the bank to support the lot of them. Two unseen brothers have joined the navy while another two adolescents squabble in the home where Megan, rather than her parents, runs a tight ship. Fed up with it all and desperate to claim her own life before it is too late, she finally escapes to England where she quickly finds convenient work managing a small hotel.

Meanwhile, the eldest, Tom, who studied engineering at the University of Toronto and seems ready to make his own permanent escape, sinks back into Struan. He is suffering from deep depression brought on by the suicide of a friend who has killed a child in a drunk driving accident. Tom is eventually roused from his depression only by the realization that, since Megan’s departure, no one is feeding their four-year-old brother, the heart-breakingly undemanding Adam.

Megan’s coming-of-age and Tom’s re–emergence are sympathetically observed by a third-person narrator limited to their narrow points of view. But the really interesting character here is the father, Edward, because his story is told in the first person as he attempts some therapeutic writing. Lawson’s skill in revealing his emotional isolation, his false rationalism and his willing disregard for his children is often gripping. He is something of an unreliable narrator, always a compelling storytelling device, and is real enough in his delusions that you often want to give him good shake—as does Megan.

Unnecessarily, he is also reading from his mother’s improbably preserved diary, an ungainly device that allows him to recount his past. Here Lawson strays into cliché, giving him an alcoholic and abusive prospector for a father and a saintly mother as well as a fateful encounter with a forest fire that engulfs the family farm.

Like many a traditional storyteller writing in a postmodern age, Lawson struggles with point of view. Crow Lake was written exclusively from the point of view of its protagonist, Kate, but relied on some overly convenient bits of eavesdropping to impart information she did not know, and finally show her the limits of her perspective. Here, Lawson simply alternates between the three stories, but if Edward is going to give us conscious explanations of his writing and his reading, as though we could not simply accept narrative without questioning its source, then where did Megan’s and Tom’s stories come from and who is telling them? The novel is unbalanced as a result.

Lawson is occasionally so dexterous a writer that she can produce a fresh image or new metaphor that lodges in the memory. Tom, for example, finds the perfect job, high up in the cab of the local snow plough, isolated from the world by the weather and the machine. “All around him snow stretched pure and clean and untouched apart from the path of the snowplough, a scar across a perfect face,” Lawson writes. “Now and then a couple of crows lifted from the trees like scraps of charred paper, floating for a moment in the still air, cawing harshly to each other, then dropped back into the woods. No other sound.”

At other times, she seems merely to reheat the leftover tropes of rural tragedy, all those ill-timed pregnancies, unbending fathers and fatal accidents. Few Canadians today could say they live in a community where a sanctimonious minister could socially isolate the local bank manager by shaming him from the pulpit.

Of course, that does not mean they are not interested in reading about the constrained times and places where that could have happened, but Lawson’s project grows less persuasive with this third iteration and, let it be said—at the risk of contradicting Canadians’ much vaunted reputation for excessive politeness—a bit creepy. Her books are like some long, desperate missive home that got mislaid by the postman and languished in the dead letter office before being delivered years too late. It is all very sad, you think as you read it, but this tear-stained thing was not intended for me.