Jawbone Lake by Ray Robinson

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Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

The North Yorkshire writer Ray Robinson is not one to stand still. His first novel, 2006’s Electricity (which has been adapted into a forthcoming film starring Agness Deyn), concerned a woman with epilepsy dealing with her mother’s death. His second, The Man Without (2008), had the same starting point but went in a different direction, focusing on the earlier protagonist’s cousin.

In 2010, Robinson took us to America for Forgetting Zoë, the tale of a young girl held captive, in danger of losing her very self. For his new novel, Robinson travels closer to home, with a tale which is more concerned with remembering, as its characters face life without loved ones whom they remember painfully well – although, in one case, they didn’t know him quite well enough.

We begin on New Year’s Eve, with a Land Rover driving straight into Jawbone Lake, near the Peak District town of Ravenstor. The driver of the vehicle was CJ Arms, a local businessman who’d built up a successful company in Spain. CJ’s son Joe returns home from London to a family who cannot explain the crash – who cling to the hope that, as long as CJ’s body is not found, he may still be alive. Joe’s grandfather Bill asks him to travel to Spain and find out the truth of CJ’s life there; what Joe discovers will challenge everything he thought he knew about his father.

The events of New Year’s Eve were witnessed by Rebecca Miller, otherwise known as Rabbit, a woman haunted by the sudden death of her baby son a year previously. She is developing an uncertain attraction for a colleague at work, but perhaps her main hope is for somewhere to hide from the world. And a third figure, Grogan – who pursued CJ down to the lake – is watching both Joe and Rabbit, waiting for the right moment to tidy things up.

For quite a way into Jawbone Lake, I was thinking that the character of Grogan didn’t seem to fit: he’s the type of sinister hard man that is a mainstay of Brit gangster thrillers, but seems out of place in a novel which is generally quite a reflective portrait of families dealing with grief and loss. Then it struck me that this may be the point: the thriller elements of the novel are an intrusion on what appeared to be the reality of life. Perhaps this is most clear when Joe visits Spain and learns about his father’s other life; it doesn’t square with the CJ he knew, but is nonetheless real, and Joe has to face up to what that means. But, whenever the novel’s underbelly incurs on the main narrative, the change in tone is as jarring for the reader as the events are shocking (even nightmarish at times) for the characters who experience them.

The loss of CJ leaves a hole in the Arms family’s life that gets harder to fill the more they learn about him. In Rabbit’s case, the situation is subtly different: there’s a hole in her life caused by the death of her son (and that of her mother, who passed away some years before); but it’s only by reaching into and learning more about herself that Rabbit is able to find a way forward. The general theme of hidden truth is mirrored elegantly in Robinson’s use of landscape: Jawbone Lake is not a natural feature, but a reservoir with an old village at the bottom (I must tip my hat here to the novel’s superb cover design, which heightens the artificiality of a supposedly ‘natural’ scene, and is really quite eerie); every new environment in which CJ lived seems to have brought out a different side to him.

In Jawbone Lake, you have a novel that starts off as the mystery of why this man would drive into a lake, then grows into an examination of how people may try to handle grief and the uncovering of secrets; a novel that knows how to thrill, even as it treats its thriller aspect as something strange and inscrutable. So that’s another intriguing book from an author whose work should not remain a secret.

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David Hebblethwaite blogs at David’s Book World.

Ray Robinson, Jawbone Lake, (William Heinemann, 2014), 311 pages.

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