You might think Struan is an unlikely setting for a novel. A town you can walk through in under ten minutes (even on slippery wintry surfaces).
“Walking from one end of Struan to the other takes less than ten minutes. If you kept walking south and east eventually you would hit civilization; if you kept walking north and west you would hit Crow Lake, where the road comes to an end. In either case you’d freeze to death long before you got there. When I reached the gas station at the far northern end of town I turned around and walked home.”
Readers of Mary Lawson’s earlier novels will recognize the small town immediately. (Crow Lake was published in 2002 and The Other Side of the Bridge in 2006.)
And it’s fitting that connections to the author’s previous works surface immediately, pulling readers back, even while they are looking ahead to the pages of this new novel, revealing the characters’ preoccupation with looking backwards as often as ahead.
In theory, characters like Edward admire endurance and determination.
When he thinks of Betty, the librarian, he marvels. “Ever onward. I imagine that sums up her attitude to life. I find it admirable and rather shaming.”
Andrew reminds Edward’s daughter, Megan, of the value of this approach too.
“’A true survivor,’ Andrew said. ‘Still soldiering on.’”
But Edward and Megan and her brother, Tom, are often pulled back into patterns which are not only ineffective, but destructive.
This is true, too, of other characters in Road Ends, but the narrative voice shifts between the father and two grown children, whereas the other characters settle at the fringes of the story.
Despite the threat (and occurrence) of regression, however, each of these characters is making motions towards the future. They are striving toward change, in their own ways.
“I managed to simply turn and leave, which was an achievement. My father would have knocked them both across the room.” [Naming the speaker would reveal a spoiler of sorts.]
But it’s complicated, and Mary Lawson’s story is realistic; failures shadow successes largely because the events of 1968 and 1969 are critical years for members of this family, and their recovery is tentative, fragile, perhaps impossible.
“There is a law of nature – or at any rate of human nature – that says you should never, ever, allow yourself to think for a single minute that things are finally getting better because Fate just won’t be able to resist cutting you off at the knees.”
Their burdens are reflected in the setting, the weight of winter hanging heavily on the characters and their stories.
“Dark, snow-laden trees beyond the fields. Sky a flat and endless grey. All around him snow stretched pure and clean and untouched apart from the path of the snowplough, a scar across a perfect face. Now and then a couple of crows lifted from the trees like scraps of charred paper, floated for a moment in the still air, cawing harshly to each other, then dropped back into the woods. No other sound.”
They chronicle their missed opportunities and lament inaction.
“I should have called him back. I should have insisted that we talk about whatever it is that is worrying him so much. I think we would have, if I’d insisted, and it might have helped.”
They are preoccupied by grief.
“But probably he’d known they were dead earlier than that. There would have been something about the silence inside the car. Not an empty silence; something more final.”
And losses overwhelm.
“But the moment of death itself – the time between being and not being – that was the bit that was beyond comprehension. What was it like? Was it a fading away, a soft rope slipping through your fingers, your grasp on it so light, so gentle, that in ‘the end’ you couldn’t tell if you were still holding it or not? Or was it like the flock of a switch? Alive – dead. Like that. Alive – dead. Nothing.”
But, there is love, too.
“Love was not an idea; you couldn’t choose to get it or not get it any more than you could choose to catch or not catch flu.”
And what is truly surprising about Road Ends is that despite the weight of its themes and the burdens the characters struggle to manage, the novel is a page-turner and the lives of its characters relentlessly engaging.
And readers familiar with the work of Canadian writers from Brian Francis to Alice Munro, from Craig Davidson to Robertson Davies, will know that a town the size of Struan contains more than enough room for countless stories.