Black Lake by Johanna Lane

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To call a story set in an enormous castle “claustrophobic” feels odd, but that’s the first adjective that comes to mind when you read Black Lake, Johanna Lane’s hypnotic debut novel. Part of the claustrophobia is due to the plot: the Campbell family has lived in a castle called Dulough (Irish for “black lake”) for centuries, and can no longer afford to maintain it. Patriarch John will be forced to give the family home to the government, whereupon it will be turned into a museum. Philip, the Campbell family’s young son, is worried, and has every right to be. “He told himself that if he wanted to come back… he could. It was still his room. Dulough was still their house. Their father had told them so…” Later, Philip sees a KEEP OFF THE GRASS sign on his own (former) front lawn, and it feels so foreign that he leans back to the gravel, like a reflex.

Black Lake is the story of how the family comes to terms with losing their home, their way of life and, by extension, each other. The book is plotless. At times its plotlessness is frustrating. But it doesn’t take long for Lane to teach the reader what kind of novel this is, and brilliantly so: it’s not so much a structured, tightly-woven narrative as it is a well-observed family drama. Rather than loading her novel with standard plot devices (though the loss of Dulough serves as a handy MacGuffin), Lane carpets the book wall-to-wall with recognizable human moments as we watch the family weather this storm. Entire characters are established with smartly chosen gestures, like the government employee who gives his secretary “a look somewhere between brazen lust and fatherly scolding”. The most difficult-to-like characters earn our sympathy simply because Lane gives us access to their thoughts, as when John visits his now-empty bedroom for a pair of socks, knowing it’ll be empty, “in that strange duality that can exist in the mind, the one that allows us to make two appointments at three o’clock on the same day”.

Johanna Lane

Johanna Lane

Most importantly for a novel about strained family relations, the characters’ little moments with each other are at once comforting and disquieting, depending on how they (and we) read them: John’s wife Marianne puts her hand on his shoulder, and “he isn’t sure if that meant ‘It’s all right’ or perhaps ‘Calm down.’” The intricacies of the Campbell family are fascinating, a stunningly accurate portrait of a quartet of people stuck together for a lifetime by no choice of their own, who deal with this turn of events through routine, familiarity, and lies—the same way we all do.

The accuracy of the portrait is all the more impressive because we aren’t really granted access to the deepest, saddest, most complex of the family’s secrets until the final third of the book. Most of the novel ping-pongs between John’s and Philip’s viewpoints, and their third-person narration recalls Henry James. John’s sections are both distant and close, so that Lane gets away with an aside like “he realized he would be able to tell her then without any possibility of her reneging on their agreement—which was their marriage—and returning to the city.” And Philip’s sections especially, with their child’s-eye view of a complicated adult world falling apart, have a What Maisie Knew quality about them. But neither John nor Philip is willing to offer us much beyond his immediate observations, so the remainder of our information comes from documents: a found letter, a government contract, an in-depth history of Dulough which acts as the centerpiece of the novel.

An eleventh hour shift in the novel suddenly fills in all the gaps, and it turns out there’s been a masterful structure woven through these passages all along. The book opens in daughter Kate’s point of view, during the most recent events in the story, when mother and daughter have holed themselves up in one of Dulough’s many rooms and the pitch of that section gets increasingly heightened until it’s pushed to its furthest degree. The book ends, however, in the first-person voice of Marianne, a character who’s been a quiet enigma to her family and to us until then. John can’t understand his wife, and we’re told, early on, “he wasn’t sure when the balance of power had shifted… he hadn’t been watching because he hadn’t expected it.” That, and many other questions, gets beautifully, satisfyingly solved in the final stretch.

Like the Campbells themselves, the walls of this lakeside setting feel like they’re closing in on us until we’re unable to escape, hence the claustrophobia. “I don’t think people from warm places would want to swim in a cold Irish pool,” remarks one character. But Lane’s cold Irish pool of a novel is exactly the kind of place you want to visit again and again.


Ted McLoof teaches fiction at the University of Arizona. He is culture critic at Rookerville, and his work has appeared in Minnesota Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Gertrude, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, DIAGRAM, Kenyon Review, Louisville Review, Juked, and elsewhere. He's been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net Award. Follow him at @TedMcloof. More from this author →