Friday May 13, 2011
Kim Edwards moves forward
Review by MARTIN SPICE
An author with a critically acclaimed debut breaks the sophomore curse with a worthy follow-up.
The Lake Of Dreams
Author: Kim Edwards
Publisher: Viking, 384 pages
THE second one, they say, is always the hardest. Whether it’s a novel, an album or an exhibition, after the first success the stakes are upped, it all gets more difficult and the critics’ knives are sharpened. Audience expectations are higher and the fear of failure grows.
It’s a pressure that Kim Edwards must have felt after the world-wide popularity of her first novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, despite the affirmation and confidence that such success brought. After a modest start, her 2005 debut went viral, sold a million copies in Britain and Ireland alone, was translated into 38 languages and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for two years. That’s a tough act to follow.
But followed it now is The Lake Of Dreams, a book with some similarities of theme. To a greater or lesser extent, both books are concerned with the past and, in particular, with how the past can be suppressed until its secrets are revealed to have a profound effect on the present.
Edwards is a professor of English at the University of Kentucky in the United States and The Lake Of Dreams is a well written “literary” novel. She establishes her protagonist and her theme from the start through clever use of imagery and setting.
As Lucy Jarrett lies in bed in a village near the sea in Japan, she is woken by an earthquake. The dream she is woken from is of translucent ice, beneath which she sees “so many people, living their lives just beneath the surface. I caught them in glimpses, fell to my knees, pressed my palms against the glassy surface – so thick, so clear, so cold. I’d put them here, somehow, I knew that.”
Swiftly and economically, Edwards maps out for us the territory the book will explore. Lucy is to undergo some form of personal upheaval that will disrupt her nomadic and unsettled lifestyle. Buried guilt will come to the surface and a past that appears hidden will live again. And so it proves.
Lucy returns home to The Lake Of Dreams from Japan after her mother has an accident. She has led an itinerant life after her father’s drowning in a boating accident one night when she declined to accompany him on a fishing trip. Would he have drowned if she had been there? She is haunted by the What if...?
Her homecoming, as most are, is a mixture of the familiar, the disturbing and the changed. Her mother provides consistency and solidity although the new man in her life causes Lucy some pangs; the presence of Lucy’s old love, Keegan, resurrects emotions better forgotten; and her less-than-sympathetic brother is part of a scheme that aims to sell off their rambling old house and turn over the salt marshes on which it stands for development.
Into this already complex family situation, the past unexpectedly impinges when Lucy discovers a bundle of letters and pamphlets in the attic. Considering that this is one of the hoariest devices in the literary canon, Edwards pulls it off remarkably well. It is a cliché but she makes it credible. And, to be fair, there are a limited number of ways in which the past can be “discovered”. Intrigued by what she has found, Lucy becomes obsessed with the story of Rose, a distant relative who wanted to be a priest and was part of the suffragette movement, as well as being a model and muse for some beautiful stained glass windows that have recently been discovered in a nearby chapel and one of which is being restored by Keegan.
As the novel develops, Edwards explores the way in which past and present, Rose and Lucy, relate and interact. Both are compelling tales. “Could the past ever be just the past?” Lucy wonders at one point, and the book’s answer seems to be a resounding “no”. As Edwards has said in interview: “That’s really Lucy’s quest in this novel, to resolve the lingering mysteries and sorrows of the past so she can move forward.” It is a quest that takes her deep into the history of the suffragette movement, into the biography of stained glass artist Frank Westrum and through the turmoil of her own past and family history.
The Lake Of Dreams is a compelling read and I found myself looking for excuses to carry on reading it when I should have been doing other things – always a good sign! In contrast to The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, where the secret is out from the first, The Lake Of Dreams maintains its secrets until the end when Lucy-as-sleuth is finally able to make all the pieces fit. Its denouement has a brutal ring of truth about it and the reader is left feeling that the family will never be the same again. But neither will Lucy – and that is the point.
As for the wider issues that the past has thrown up, well, they are resolved in a manner that seems almost too neat and just a little pat. But don’t let that put you off – the journey is worth any question marks over the ending.