Crow Lake is a simple, feel-good novel set some five hours north of Toronto by a fictitious lake, amid the blackflies, the impoverished, the abusers and the Bible thumpers. Kate Morrison is our narrator and like her father not much of a storyteller; she meanders and repeats, she tells instead of shows, she is blind in obvious ways and uncannily astute in obscure ways. She speaks in the same voice as almost everyone else (except the Bible thumper who speaks like this: "It's hard, my lamb, but think how happy our Lord will be!"). There are happy shades of Alice Munro in this novel. However, the writing craft rarely approaches Munro's level of linguistic tension and that, to me, is the book's largest disappointment.
The story begins with the tragic death of Kate's parents, shifts to a predictable TV fare (Party of Five in the high north) in which Kate, her two older brothers, Luke and Matt, and their baby sister Bo make ends meet in the most difficult of situations. Luke makes the ultimate sacrifice of giving up a career he didn't really want, Matt protests but studies hard for a scholarship (we are told he is a genius) which he wins but never uses because he marries Marie Pye whom he accidentally gets pregnant (hence, tragedy number two). Kate spends years and years of her life believing that Matt's life is tragic and that she is the embodiment of what success would have looked like for him if he hadn't ruined his educational opportunity.
She has lived for Matt, in a strange unspoken sacrifice of her own making. Kate becomes a biologist, finds a nice clever boyfriend named Daniel from whom she cannot hide her family or herself. The scene is set when she feels forced into bringing Daniel up to Crow Lake for her nephew's birthday party.
Kate's only epiphany comes out of the mouth of her nemesis, Marie Pye who is still a cipher to us some 280 pages into the work. Marie says: "You think what happened to [Matt] is the great tragedy of his life. You can hardly look at him, you feel so sorry for him and so angry with him still. After all these years you can still hardly look at him, Kate."(p279) And this shift is the most fascinating aspect of the entire book. It is with relief that the reader finds Kate so exposed to herself (that she might "absorb this new view...this new perspective of our lives" p290); the real tragedy of Crow Lake is that she didn't see sooner so that the characters, particularly Marie, could have been more fully rendered instead of the flat projections we get from Kate's myopic point of view.
The ponds across the tracks from the Morrison property are a pretty devise that allows Lawson to foreshadow various important moments in her story. They dovetail into Kate's career choice making the whole connection between Matt and Kate plausible. It is a pity that Kate couldn't see, as Matt could, the "wonder" of the ponds. It renders her character kind of dull.
The surface tension of the pond, and the little creatures that scutter there are a microcosm of Kate's larger world¨the created tension between her and Matt, her and Daniel. I like the central image but a symbol cannot replace good, believable dialogue, or the crafted sentence, or slow revelation through deed not word.
When the pond begins to positively boil with mating frogs, the reader will surmise that it is only a matter of time before Matt's affections for the downtrodden Marie Pye (the daughter of the meanest farmer you've ever met) are fully realised. In one melodramatic scene poor Marie runs in to declare pregnancy ("He'll kill me. Oh God, he'll kill me." p267).
Marie Pye is the "reason" Matt discontinues his studies. Kate fails to see that he loves her, loves their son, and is noble for his choices. She is full of disdain and certain jealousy. Unfortunately, we know only what Kate tells us and we assume a level of confidence in our narrator. We know Kate adores Matt and we see through her blurry vision that Matt loves Marie. It becomes positively annoying that Kate is so heartless, so lacking in vision that she can't see that her brother has saved Marie Pye from a hell on earth. Lawson's revelatory ending is only useful to Kate. The reader knew long before that Kate's oft-mentioned, unemotional Presbyterianism was blocking a view to a fuller, richer story. ˛