Mary Lawson's second novel traces the story of Arthur Dunn and his brother Jacob, along with a coming-of-age tale about the local doctor's son, Ian. Longlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, it's a subtly wrought affair of complex relationships, hard truths and shocking events, set in the far north of Canada.
Arthur - somewhat like the biblical Esau, but much gentler - is a bear of a boy: slow, solid and dependable. He works hard in the fields, but has trouble squeezing his body behind a child's desk, and his mind into schoolwork. Jake is handsome and slender, blond with dark blue eyes, and as persuasive with the girls as his brother is tongue-tied. He's brilliant at school, but useless around the farm.
We meet them in the early 1930s. Arthur is in his teens, Jake eight or nine years old. Jake has nagged his brother into playing a knife-throwing game, during which his knife ends up in Arthur's foot.
Next, it's forward to 1957, where a 15-year-old Ian adores - from afar - Arthur's beautiful wife Laura. The story flips back and forth between the 1930s and 1950s in this way throughout the book. Each chapter is epigraphed by real-life headlines from a local rag: "District Man Collects $80 on Dead Bears"; "Expert Warns Silage is Tricky". Gently amusing, these attune the reader to a place and time where nothing, and everything, happens.
The years pass and stoic Arthur fields more (metaphorical) knives, thrown at him by the hardships of farm life, historical events and his attractive, errant brother.
Ian, told by his parents to get a Saturday job to save money for college, asks for work on Arthur's farm, hoping to be close to Laura. As his involvement with the Dunns deepens and the domestic drama unfolds, the author keeps the broader picture in focus. Absorbed into her tale of betrayal, loss and love are the Depression, the devastating effects of the Second World War, and the troubled relationship between the local Wasps and the native Ojibway.
The characterisation is precise. Ian, for instance, is a proper teenage boy: quick to judge; unintentionally unkind to his besotted girlfriend; often inarticulate; obsessed with fishing. And Lawson's prose is quiet, lucid and as expansive as the lake on which Ian whiles away his spare time with his best friend Pete, a native boy, catching "one fish to every four or five caught by Pete... It was a fact of life and he had accepted it long ago".Reuse content