Black Lake by Johanna Lane

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Reviewed by Danielle Simpson

Johanna Lane’s debut novel, Black Lake, is the sort of story that creeps up on you. You don’t realize just how good it is until halfway through the book when you begin seeing all the layers of meaning, so immersed have you been in the telling of the story. If I could press a copy of this slender novel, so understated yet so elegantly constructed, into your hands right now, I would.

In the opening scene a mother has locked herself and her nearly-teenage daughter into what was once meant to be the ballroom of a grand country home in County Donegal, Northern Ireland. All great houses must have a ballroom and so, too, does Dulough. Guided by his conservative religious beliefs, though, the man who built it never used the room and closed it off instead, leaving it to sit mostly forgotten. Now, however, it provides respite and security for Marianne whose home is being opened to tourists hoping finally to have a good look inside this fading and otherwise closed world.

Johanna Lane’s quietly beautiful novel of what happens to a family when they must give up their world and all they know eloquently describes the sense of isolation and dislocation felt when all that is familiar – what’s called home – is lost to them. How little do we realize how much of one’s identity is wrapped up in the bricks and mortar we turn to for shelter and warmth, and not just of the physical sort. For the lucky, resiliency of spirit is enough to help them rebound, but what if that sense of loss is too great to be overcome? It’s rich ground that Lane mines for the answers to these questions.

In a sense, this is a story that has been told many times before. Certainly it’s not unfamiliar terrain, but how Lane approaches it is refreshingly unexpected. The scene at the beginning of the story is actually the end stripped of certain details. A dislocation of sorts for the reader. The story wends its way around and is told in chunks by each of the characters in turn. Four different perspectives shed light in varying degrees on the events leading up to the opening of Dulough to tourists. Not only will the money help keep the estate afloat, but it will allow the villagers a chance to enjoy the estate, too.

Dulough has a checkered past. The first owner, referred to by the current, Campbell, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner as Phillip the First, wasn’t known especially for his generosity. As a matter of fact it was with a complete lack of regard that he evicted a number of tenants when he first purchased the land and built the stately home, and it has ever since been a specter lurking in the collective mind of the villagers. While Phillip’s ancestors are regarded much more favorably, there is a certain amount of vindication felt when the Campbells have to live in the caretaker’s cottage and the villagers get access to the house, which even the family can no longer claim as entirely its own.

Great estates handed down from generation to generation are costly and expensive to maintain. To someone like Marianne, a Dubliner by birth, the idea of marrying into a family such as John Campbell’s is as nerve-racking as it is exciting. Upon her marriage she must face a different sort of dislocation. She goes from university student to mistress of the manor, but a home in which she has little authority of her own. Still, she falls in love with Dolough, named for the Black Lake next to which it sits. It suits her sensibilities and she feels an affinity to living there, a responsibility even. She knows how lucky she is. To be mistress is a gift, and one which she tries to impress on her two children, Katie and Phillip.

When the house opens to the public, each member of the family must deal with the life-altering change in their own way and it affects each differently and to different degrees. Each discovers just how much of a void in their lives will result with the loss of their home, a home that offers a sense of security and place as much as it offers a sense of identity. Just as Black Lake has a smooth and pristine surface that hides a dangerous undertow, so, too, does the family, as all their secrets begin rising to the surface, spoiling the perfect veneer they managed to show to the public. Up come all the petty animosities, misunderstandings and hurt feelings. What might have brought the family closer together only hastens things along and pulls them apart.

This is such a pitch perfect novel and now that I’ve read it and know some of what the story holds in reserve for the reader who is willing to read carefully and thoughtfully, as surely that is how Johanna Lane must have written it, I feel like a second go could only make for an even richer read. It’s an unassuming story, quietly waiting to be discovered and one that is most deservedly due a broader audience. I hope you’ll give it a try.

Elizabeth Bowen and Molly Keane are both exceptionally good writers whose works are quite similar thematically, and I can warmly recommend either if you’re not yet ready to leave the world Johanna Lane has created so brilliantly.

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Danielle blogs at A Work in Progress

Johanna Lane, Black Lake (Tinder Press:, 2014), 224 pages.

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