Perhaps because Mary Lawson has lived most of her life in England, she hasn’t become a household name in Canada.
But Lawson is able to conjure the Canadian landscape, and the isolated small towns of Ontario where she spent her youth, as clearly as the best Canadian writers.
So maybe it’s just a matter of time before her name trips off the tongue when listing major Canadian authors.
In 2001, Crow Lake, the first of a trilogy, won the Canada Books First Novel award. Her second book, The Other Side of the Bridge, was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006. Her latest, Road Ends, completes the trilogy with more powerful writing.
The story of Road Ends swirls around a dysfunctional family home in the fictional industrial town of Struan, Ontario. It’s the 1960s, but changes and new ideas being formed in other parts of the world have not yet come to Struan.
A reclusive mother keeps having children, but isn’t interested in caring for them. The father, unable to cope, retreats to his study. One of the older daughters, Megan, is left to hold the family together, caring for all the children, including her unwashed and neglected younger sibling Adam.
An older brother, Tom, is top of his class and studying aeronautical engineering. He tells Megan she needs to leave the home, but never believes she will.Roles are suddenly reversed when Tom witnesses the suicide of his best friend.
Tom ends his studies to return home, and Megan makes the difficult decision to leave her family far behind and move to England.
Lawson is a master at digging into the complexities of family dynamics. She does this by alternating narrators in the story. She pulls the reader closer to different characters by submersing them in different points of view.
It’s a difficult decision that many people have to make in life: Do you turn your back on your family in order to follow your own dreams?
Lawson uses uniquely Canadian imagery to intensify a sense of isolation. Tom, in his depression, drives night shift on a snow plow, so he can watch the curl of snow fanning out from his blade. He can get away from caring for his young brother Adam, and yet not have to interact with the outside world.
I recently flew back from Europe, where the blossoms were out, people were drinking wine on street-side patios and kids were sailing boats in the park pond.
The world turned white as we changed planes in Montreal. Rows of dump trucks carted snow from the runway and flights were delayed due to frozen airplane brakes.
The shock of the new landscape helped me see Canada, just briefly, as others might.
I felt badly for the tourists on the plane who were getting off in Quebec. But the scene out the window also reminded me that the experience of seeing familiar sights with fresh eyes is what eventually helps Megan make the decision whether to stay away or return to her family.
These moments of clear perspective may also have something to do with how Lawson manages to write so powerfully about harsh Canadian landscapes from her distant English home.
Heather Allen is a book reviewer and writer living in Penticton.