The Next Chapter

Mary Lawson's novel A Town Called Solace is a mystery about hope and redemption in Northern Ontario

The celebrated Ontario-raised, U.K.-based author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing her latest book.
A Town Called Solace is a novel by Mary Lawson. (Knopf Canada, Nathaniel Mobbs)

Mary Lawson is a novelist who grew up in Ontario and now lives in the U.K. Her other novels include Crow LakeThe Other Side of the Bridge and Road EndsCrow Lake won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

Lawson spent her summers in the North, and the landscape inspired her to use Northern Ontario as her settings for her novels. Her latest, A Town Called Solace is a novel told from three different perspectives: Clara, a young woman who sits at her window, waiting for her missing sister Rose to return home, Liam, Clara's new neighbour who Clara watches with suspicion, and Elizabeth Orchard, the old woman who owns the house Liam is staying in.

As their stories unfold, so does the mystery of what happened to Clara's sister and how Mrs. Orchard and Liam are connected. Lawson spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing A Town Called Solace.

Northern sensibilities

"I love writing about the North. I know the North from my time there. I've been up North practically every year since. But I haven't lived in Canada since, I hate to admit it, 1968. So it's just that I know how it was — and I feel sure of my ground when I write about it. When I write, I'm there. So it's fabulous.

You cannot be indifferent to Northern Ontario — you can't be indifferent to the weather up there.

"I don't know how common an experience that is, and I don't know if it's something to do with the harshness of the weather and the terrain, but you cannot be indifferent to Northern Ontario — you can't be indifferent to the weather up there. It dominates your life, particularly in winter. 

"Also there's just the fact that it is so uniquely beautiful."

The tenderness of getting older

"I was 72, which is Elizabeth Orchard's age, when I started writing the book. I'm older than that now, and it takes me a long time to write books. I've reached the stage where your past is an awful lot bigger than your future —  you really are taking stock. Possibly because I'm a writer, and I do draw on the country of my youth or my books, I spend a lot of time back in the past anyway.

I've reached the stage where your past is an awful lot bigger than your future —  you really are taking stock.

"Elizabeth, who had a very difficult life early on, I imagined that in her older years she would be thinking back on that and regretting things very much. 

"She's looking back and wishing that she could make amends for something that she did 30 years previously. I have set her partly in the present, but in her own mind, she is almost exclusively in the past." 

From a child's point of view

"Kids are completely fascinating in how they develop, how they learn, how much they understand even early on. Clara's sister has gone missing and her parents are absolutely distraught, as is Clara. Her parents are desperate to protect her from the terrible truth of this situation. 

"Therefore, they keep reassuring her that everything is all right, which she knows — seven is plenty old enough to see that your parents are distraught and that everything isn't all right.

I decided to tell the story of Rose going missing from the child's point of view.

"I decided to tell the story of Rose going missing from the child's point of view. When you see these dreadful things on television, where a child has gone missing, they frequently interview the parents. 

"Almost never do you see the effect on the siblings. It must be terrifying. She's frightened and bewildered as well as grief stricken that her sister stormed out of the house after a row with their mother — and then didn't come back."

Mary Lawson's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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