Abi Maxwell’s first novel is a controlled and skillfully executed story of a troubled family history and of one young woman’s search for identity. In creating this small, emotionally penetrating tale, it seems that Maxwell draws as much on her life and work as an assistant librarian as she does on the MFA she earned at the University of Montana.
“Lake People” is set in the small town of Kettleborough, N.H., and focuses on Alice Thorton, a young woman abandoned as a newborn by her teenage parents, and her search for the truth about her origins. The novel’s central locale — the town’s unnamed lake — is as much a character as any human. “I can see myself as a child of that water,” Alice reflects, “and not the unwanted infant that I truly was.”
The lake is the site of multiple drownings and a source of myth and mystery, much of it centered around Bear Island, a “wild and solitary place,” where Alice’s female ancestors have lived and died, and where she settles for a time as the story approaches its climax. Alice identifies deeply with those women, observing that, “I felt sharply that out there on the dark, frozen lake, some pure and ancient thread had woven itself through my ancestors, and finally sewn itself into me.”
The story’s action, described in the voices of both first- and third-person narrators, ranges across more than 80 years, but mostly is concentrated in the 1980s when Alice, in her early 20s, has settled uneasily into her life in Kettleborough. The novel is redolent of the secrets that haunt small-town life and exposes the class differences that are as sharp there as anywhere. It’s equally perceptive in describing Alice’s attempt to find meaningful romantic relationships, a struggle that feels rooted in her early abandonment.
For all the novel’s assurance and sturdiness, Maxwell doesn’t completely avoid some of the structural missteps of the new author. Frequent time shifts feel as if they add unnecessary complexity, and at least one family relationship between two characters seems implausible. But these are relatively minor lapses, especially when balanced against Maxwell’s skill in avoiding the tendency of first-time novelists to paper over weaknesses in plot or characterization with self-indulgent prose. Instead, there’s a plain-spoken quality to Maxwell’s writing that at least suggests comparison to authors like Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro.
“Lake People” is an evocative novel that creates a melancholic mood from the first page and sustains it throughout without succumbing to despair. That’s an impressive gift and one that bodes well for this writer’s future work.
Harvey Freedenberg is a Harrisburg, Pa., freelance reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.