Black Lake is the first novel by Irish author Johanna Lane, the tale of a family tying to keep their “big house” and estate solvent.
The plot, as much as there is one, concerns the current owners of a once-grand house and large estate in remote Co. Donegal. Dulough (meaning “black lake”) was built by a Scottish industrialist in the 1800s, and initially the family had plenty of money to support it. However, over the generations, the house was willed to the member of the family most interested in living there and continuing the family legacy. Consequently, these were the family members least interested in making the vast amounts of money required to keep such a large house in good repair.
The latest generation are a troubled lot: John, who grew up at Dulough, his wife Marianne, who didn’t quite understand what she was marrying into, and their children, Philip (8), and Kate (12). The novel opens confusingly with the mother having suddenly removed Kate from her boarding school in Dublin and hidden the pair of them in Dulough’s enormous ballroom, where they seem to live for some time. John quietly brings food to the door twice a day, and tries to keep their presence in the house a secret. At this point, little is clear to the reader: where they are, who they are, or why this man is quietly feeding them and not calling in the authorities.
After this scene setting, we jump back in time to the previous spring, to the very day the family moves out of Dulough and into a small caretakers’ cottage on the estate. The family is all but bankrupt, and John has worked out a deal with the County Council and Office of Public Works to open the house to the public in exchange for an income and vital repairs to the building. Although John has reconciled himself to this necessary evil, young Philip is devastated that they are losing the only home he’s every known and can’t understand what’s going on. (Lane is very good at writing children, and capturing their logic and quick — even if incomplete — perception.)
The story progresses in chapters alternating between Philip and John’s perspectives, which presents problems as inevitably the child is more open and emotional than the father. John is infuriatingly passive, and a poor decision maker. He’s never sought to follow any career or work in the larger world, so he sees everything through the sepia-tinted light of family history. He sees the problems facing Dulough, but hasn’t the gumption to do anything about them until it’s really too late.
Philip’s chapters are particularly lively as he sneaks around the old house as workmen prepare it to become a museum, and he carries out instinctive small rebellions along the way, such as removing signs and quietly removing family toys and heirlooms from the displays.
Each member of the family is trying to find a place for themselves amid the turmoil of change. Philip starts to build a hut on an island only accessible at low tide; Marianne throws herself into creating a new garden, and John hides out in the old study in Dulough — now his office, it’s the only part of the old house the family retains. Unfortunately, young Kate is strangely anonymous until she is sent off to boarding school.
Marianne’s breakdown is precipitated by a tragedy hinted at early in the book, but which doesn’t occur until the second half. The first half of the book is told in alternating chapters from John and Philip’s point of view, before we finally hear from Marianne, in a very long first-person chapter. By then, we’ve been prepared to see her as rather unbalanced, based on her choosing to keep her daughter captive in the ballroom (which it should be noted is oddly located at the top of the house, encouraging us to read Marianne as part of the “madwoman in the attic” tradition). However, she emerges from her pages as very lucid, clear-eyed, and quite a strong character. She recalls her college days and their early marriage, and reveals how John hid the true state of the family’s finances from her from the start. This is completely at odds to the way she’s been presented up to then.
Lane appears to be playing to our preconceived notions of the Anglo-Irish as a class: aloof, discrete to the point of secrecy, and occasionally a little eccentric. Revealing Marianne to be as emotional, perceptive, and protective of her family as anyone else undercuts those assumptions, and takes the novel into more interesting territory.
The tragedy that unfolds is terrible, but not unpredictable. John and Marianne handle grief in their individual ways: he by retreating into his head and thoughts of the past, and she by seeking to cordon off a small part of the physical world as a sanctuary. This is really the crux of the novel as social commentary: but it’s not simply about the fate of big houses in modern Ireland.
There’s no real point in writing a novel about the decline of the big house in 2014. Those big houses have been unsustainable financial millstones for at least 50 years; Most have been turned into hotels or opened to the public long ago. It’s a testament to how difficult they are to support that there are many historic houses lying derelict around the country as various investors struggle to find the financing to restore or turn them into top-class hotels (for example, Vernon Mount in Cork). It’s impossible not to read the property bubble and austerity economics into Lane’s story. Houses of any size are financial millstones around many necks in contemporary Ireland. It’s not just a few Anglo-Irish families who can’t find any peace or security in their own homes.
Black Lake is quite a successful first novel. There are glimpses of the larger world of societal concerns filtered through the prism of one family’s struggles, and although the author keeps tight control of her characters and material, it suggests we can expect to read much more from Johanne Lane in the future.
An edited version of this review appeared in the Sept/Oct 2014 edition of Books Ireland magazine.
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