Book Review

A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson

Set in the frozen north of Canada in 1972, this is a beautiful Booker Prize longlisted novel about painful histories that need reckoning with and the moments in life when we can change for the better.

Clara’s sister is missing. Angry, rebellious Rose had a row with their mother, stormed out of the house and simply disappeared. Seven-year-old Clara, isolated by her distraught parents’ efforts to protect her from the truth, is grief-stricken and bewildered.

Liam Kane, newly divorced, newly unemployed, newly arrived in this small northern town, moves into the house next door, a house left to him by an old woman he can barely remember, and within hours gets a visit from the police. It seems he’s suspected of a crime.

At the end of her life Elizabeth Orchard is thinking about a crime too, one committed thirty years ago that had tragic consequences for two families and in particular for one small child. She desperately wants to make amends before she dies.

Set in Northern Ontario in 1972, A Town Called Solace explores the relationships of these three people brought together by fate and the mistakes of the past. By turns gripping and darkly funny, it uncovers the layers of grief and remorse and love that connect us, but shows that sometimes a new life is possible.

A Town Called Solace is another novel that I wouldn’t have come across were it not for it being longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, and while it hasn’t made it to the shortlist, it’s a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. It features three protagonists whose lives are intertwined.  Spanning a range of ages, they are individuals that you may not normally associate with one another, and yet they come to affect each other’s lives in surprising ways as the novel progresses. 

Perhaps the most unusual perspective that Lawson includes is that of eight year old Clara.  She’s very much a young girl – inquisitive and with a wonderful degree of scepticism, but more clued up than the adults around her give her credit for.  She is naïve in many respects, as she should be at that age, and Lawson avoids making her seem older than her years which can be relevant to a novel, but it’s nice to sometimes come across a child who is exactly that.  That’s not to say that she’s not experienced any hardship.  She’s struggling with the disappearance of her older sister Rosie – someone who she looks up to with adoration and who she seeks to emulate to a degree.  Clara doesn’t fully understand the implications of her sister’s disappearance and while it’s interesting to see such an event from an innocent perspective, the reader is all too able to fill in the gaps as to the risks that a sixteen year old faces when out alone in the world. 

The second perspective is that of Elizabeth Orchard – Clara’s neighbour who is currently in hospital while Clara looks after her cat, Moses.  Elizabeth is at the opposite end of the age spectrum to Clara, and it’s clear that while she’s led a mostly happy life, she has not felt entirely fulfilled, particularly as she and her husband weren’t able to have children of their own.  It’s clear from the beginning that Elizabeth has a secret – we don’t find out what until the end of the novel – but it’s something that she is deeply ashamed of, and hopes that it’s something consigned to the annals of history.

Elizabeth provides the link between Clara and the third point of view in the novel – that of thirty-something Liam Kane.  Liam arrives at Elizabeth’s house one day and – much to Clara’s disgust – let’s himself in and begins making himself at home.  Recently separated, he takes the opportunity to escape from the humdrum of daily life when Elizabeth gifts the house to him, using the time to consider his options and what happens next following his separation from his wife, who – it has to be said – he seems well shot of.  He’s adamant that he won’t stay in Solace for long – only long enough to fix up the house and sell it on – and yet seems to find it increasingly difficult to leave as time progresses. 

The timelines in the novel don’t occur simultaneously.  We see Elizabeth’s point of view from her hospital bed and her gradual deterioration, but we know also that both Clara and Liam know that she has passed away.  Clara and Liam’s narratives are more closely aligned, so much so that we see the same event from both perspectives at times.  I found this particularly interesting – seeing the same event from the perspective on an adult and a child who aren’t quite on the same wavelength. I couldn’t help but admire Clara’s gumption in some of her actions as she rebels – on the sly – against the changes Liam makes to the house despite her initial fear of this strange man.

A Town Called Solace is something of a quiet novel – it’s not one in which big, significant events happen (the missing Rosie aside) but it’s a novel about making peace with one’s life and finding friendship and indeed solace in the unlikeliest of places.  I got strong Anne Tyler vibes from this novel, and I think that fans of her work will lap this up. 

Published by Chatto & Windus, A Town Called Solace is available now in hardback, eBook, and audio formats.


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