2/28/2013 - Lake People is not so much a book as a salve, a balm of words so artfully arranged that they seem to smooth away all the rough, red patches of life and make sense of its assorted rude bewilderments.
The author, Abi Maxwell, is an assistant librarian at the Gilford Public Library and was raised in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, of which she so beautifully writes. This, her first novel, brings to mind the tired old pick-up line, “Where have you been all my life?” and then, “Assistant librarian? Are you people in Gilford nuts?”
She’s that good.
Lake People is about families, the secrets they keep and the ones they reluctantly tell. Alice Thornton, the endearing protagonist, is a woman in search of answers: why she was adopted, why she was raised without a mother, why strangers so often hint of what seems a shameful backstory, why she feels so strangely drawn to the glittering, deadly Bear Lake.
In the opening pages, it is revealed that the infant Alice was discovered in a canoe tied up at a boathouse. “I like to think my birth parents believed that this lake would hold me, keep me safe, but I don’t see how that could possibly be true, for it turns out I come from a long line of people swallowed by these waters.”
From there, we meet the long line of people: Eleanora, Alice’s great-great-grandmother, a widow with four children who walked across the thick winter ice to build a life on the island, where she eventually went mad; Signe, the sole survivor of Eleanora’s children, who raised Alice’s grandmother while nursing her own private sorrows, deep as the lake; and Sophie, the grandmother baptized by trouble, who could not deal with an illegitimate granddaughter, nor with the fact of her loss.
The stories are haunting and complex — in fact, a little too complex at times. Lake People is not a light read; it demands a fully harnessed attention, and a willingness to re-read passages at times. Ignore the chapter titles; they are confusing and useless. Never does the complexity of the novel, however, seem a failing of the author, whose storytelling, foreshadowing and character development are finely honed and expertly cast. There are no clichés in Lake People, no predictable story lines, no foregone conclusions to either actions or philosophies.
Even descriptions of geography, animals and dwellings are evocative of beauty. Maxwell does not succumb to careless composition even when delivering the weather report: “On their walk home the ice stopped shooting in pellets and instead fell straight down upon them, as though whatever valve there had been in the sky had broken. Already the road was glazed over. Power would soon be out.”
Once the backstories of Alice’s ancestors are dispensed with, the novel focuses on her journey alone: her patchy upbringing, her relationships, the search for her adoptive mother that leads her to cross the brooding water to the place her great-great-grandmother made a home. Every character in this story is memorable: the Olympic skier embittered by domesticity, the little brother determined to liberate a refrigerator full of lobsters, the abused, uneducated mother who clings to Alice with a ferocity that hints of a connection beyond that of mere neighbors.
While the legends of Kettleborough, N.H., are products of the author’s rich imagination, Bear Island itself is not. It’s the second-largest island on Lake Winnipesaukee, accessible only by boat, helicopter or snowmobile. Mail is delivered via floating post office. Bear Island’s rental properties may enjoy a renaissance born of this book, as might a certain region of Canada near Newfoundland where you can watch whales from a gorgeous, frightening cliff. Lake People is a study in what happens when people go both literally and figuratively off a cliff; it horrifies and comforts in equal measure. The novel is a page-turner with rare power to transfix. A