“The Campbells have lived happily at Dulough–an idyllic, rambling estate isolated on the Irish seaside–for generations. But upkeep has drained the family coffers, and so John Campbell must be bold: to keep Dulough, he will open its doors to the public as a museum. He and his wife, daughter, and son will move from the luxury of the big house to a dank, small caretaker’s cottage. The upheaval strains the already tenuous threads that bind the family and, when a tragic accident befalls them, long-simmering resentments and unanswered yearnings surface.
As each character is given a turn to speak, their voices tell a complicated, fascinating story about what happens when the upstairs becomes the downstairs, and what legacy is left when family secrets are revealed.”
Thoughts: Black Lake is a quiet novel. The tragedy has already occurred at the beginning of the story, so it is just a matter of the various narrators sharing their stories about the tragedy and its aftermath. This reduces the suspense of the novel in part because the tragedy itself is not the main scenario of the story. Rather, it is just one more result from the actions John takes to protect his family’s legacy. In fact, the whole book revolves around the consequences of that one decision for each family member.
As the story shifts narrators and readers gain a new perspective on the move from the big house to the cottage, it is difficult to determine which family member struggles the most with the adjustments. Each person has his or her own reasons for disliking the move, and those reasons are as varied as a lack of familiarity to a lack of privacy to the purest form of loss. Their coping mechanisms vary as much as their reasons for being unhappy about the changes, just as each person moves in his or her separate sphere of grief and adjustment. These isolating feelings and actions are the heart of the story more than the tragedy and emphasize the importance of communication and togetherness in times of upheaval.
In many ways, the weather takes on the aspect of being yet another character within the story because it is the one thing that influences the family’s mood and actions the most. As one might expect with a serious topic as massive lifestyle changes and a tragic accident, the entire tone of Black Lake is somber and dark. It mirrors much of the weather of the setting – the blustery cold that highlights most of the estate’s transformation from private house to public museum, the frigid cold of the lake itself, and the harshness of the various mountains and valleys which surrounds the estate. Dulough may be idyllic, but its climate is harsh and unforgiving to those not accustomed to it, something readers understand instinctively with the scant but effective descriptions but which becomes crystal clear as each narrator shares his or her own story.
The writing sets off this stark novel and strong emotions. In much the same way as the weather mirrors the tone of the novel the sparse writing also reflects the setting. Ms. Lane does not devote a lot of words to extraneous emotion or descriptive text but rather uses each word to display more of each character’s personality and flaws. At just over 200 pages, there is a lot of development and exposition packed into each page. Succinct and effective brevity make the story a success.
Its depressive subject matter make Black Lake a difficult novel to read in one sitting, as the Campbells’ suffering becomes overwhelming at times. Yet, as is so often the case, the family’s suffering is also mesmerizing, making it challenging to set down the novel. The family secrets help propel the story, but they are minor compared to the emotional trauma of a not only moving to a much smaller house but having one’s entire legacy exposed to the public for speculation, gossip, and judgment. The strain of isolated living along with the burdens of the past and the stresses of maintaining appearances also prove to be too much for individual family members to bear. The resulting misfortune is heartrendingly rendered by Ms. Lane’s unembellished prose.