The Lake | Sheena Lambert | 2015 | Killer Reads | 224p | Review copy | Buy the book
Over one weekend in September 1975 everything changes for the inhabitants of the small Irish village of Crumm. A generation before much of the village was submerged under a reservoir but during this particular weekend the jagged remains of forgotten structures begin to peep through the water’s surface, the lake shrunken by drought. And among them lies a body. Detective Sergeant Frank Ryan is sent to the village from Dublin to determine whether the remains are ancient – a bog body – or belong to someone much more recent, someone who might be remembered. Frank discovers that the remains are wrapped in a postal sack, a few decades old at most, no older than the drowning of the village. And so he must dig into the secrets of the village, its life focused on the local pub, The Anglers Rest, run by the Casey family.
The Lake is a beguiling novel. Sheena Lambert’s scene setting is nigh on perfect. We, accompanied by Frank Ryan, are transported into a small Irish community during a hot late summer/early autumn weekend. There’s a big match on in Dublin and so the locals are most excited about the arrival of a new TV set in the pub. They will all be there to watch it with their pints and sandwiches. There’s supposed to be an angling competition on the lake but the low waters have led to its cancellation. But then the body is found and suddenly all everyone wants to talk about is that, while muttering and gossiping about the arrival of the Dublin policeman, the man who looks to have caught the eye of Peggy, the young landlady.
The atmosphere is wonderfully captured. This is a community almost destroyed by the construction of the reservoir and yet what’s left clings to the pub. We meet many of those who have stayed behind. We hear the little details that show their lives to be hard but valued. Among the touches is the almost aside that the young local policeman, so easily teasable, has several younger siblings to feed and clothe. There are also small references to the troubles in Ireland, to the locals’ natural suspicion of policemen (indeed, anyone) from Dublin. There is the excitement surrounding the arrival of new technology – the TV causes customers to queue at the door.
And then there’s the Casey family and the four siblings – Peggy, Carla, Jerome and Hugo. We see relatively little of Hugo but each of the other three are drawn beautifully and we grow to care for them deeply. They are each very different, all with their faults, and there is constant squabbling and shifting of boundaries. But we are drawn closest to Peggy – the one who spends all of her time in Crumm while the others have found lives that take them away for at least part of the time. She is a wonderful personality. She has dreams and aspirations, she falls quickly for Frank, and yet she feels bound to the pub, through loyalty and affection as well as duty. I like Peggy so much.
The complicated and realistic relationships between the siblings form the heart of the novel, so much so that the mystery of the body takes second place, perhaps acting as no more than a catalyst for the more intimate and personal dramas that play out between these four people. Frank Ryan serves a similar purpose, triggering a reaction in Peggy and Jerome in particular. Frank’s character isn’t drawn as fully but then we just know him for the three days and I think we are only supposed to have just a hint.
The Lake is a gentle mystery, fuelled entirely by the beautifully drawn characters and location. I enjoyed the tight, controlled structure of everything taking place over one weekend. Likewise, the mid 1970s are perfectly evoked, although, once we draw away from the details about clothing and cars, there is something timeless about Crumm and the lives that belong there. There is almost a ghostly, remembrance feel to this depiction of a past time and place.
The Lake is a short novel with far fewer than 300 pages. But I will remember this book for far longer than its size would suggest. It’s likely that once begun, like me, you’ll not want to put it down. Sheena Lambert has given us a fabulous portrait of a place out of time with people that I grew to care about very deeply. Sheena Lambert writes beautifully and I look forward to reading much more from her in the future.