Rachel L. Coyne, a Macalester College graduate, lives in Lindstrom, Minn. In 2009 I reviewed her first novel for the Star Tribune. While having concerns about "Whiskey Heart," I admired the author's evocative prose, especially her descriptions of east-central Minnesota farm country in summer.
Coyne's second novel takes place an hour north of St. Paul in the same general area as "Whiskey Heart." Despite her deeply troubled characters, I appreciate Coyne's exploring and valuing the place she comes from.
Both of her books focus on alcoholic families. In "The Patron Saint of Lost Comfort Lake," Jane Darcy, a lawyer, quits her job in St. Paul to return home. While caring for her mother and daughter (her father is in the Rush City prison), she tries to drink away memories of an abusive childhood, a failed marriage and greater problems.
Jane's self-destruction, spurred on by these troubles, might seem overdone. However, the figurative devices Coyne employs — among them the recurring images of capsizing, floating and drowning — make "The Patron Saint of Lost Comfort Lake" a compelling book when read as a kind of half-nightmarish, half-realistic dreamscape. What I wrote about her earlier novel may be said of her new one: readers willing "to endure the violence and gloom … will sip a sometimes intoxicating drink."
How stark, for instance, the image of the child Jane waiting for her father outside a bar. "[I]t was hunting season, with all the newly-killed deer suspended in the trees around the parking lot." From the car, she sees and hears the gutted deer spinning "slowly on their ropes," antlers clicking "eerily against the branches."
Later she dreams her mother's basement has flooded. The water "reeked of the lake," where children have drowned. "[A]ntlers, pieces of broken bows and furniture, canning jars, knives, and yard tools" float by. The image suggests that Jane has submerged in her mind the tragedies that have befallen her and others. Much remains unseen yet partly remembered in places below the plane of the earth, in cellars and basements and beneath the surfaces of Lost Comfort and its sister lakes. Emotional and psychological scars so overwhelm Jane that you wonder whether she will recover.
Finally, she grows stronger for confronting her nightmares, although they will never entirely leave her. She suspects as much from the start. "I assumed the three lakes around my home … were all really connected — all one pool of black, subterranean cool." The lakes, which she associates with memory, thought and feeling, are interconnected in the way the subconscious connects with and influences the conscious mind.
From such depths, Jane Darcy surfaces in this haunting novel by a talented regional writer.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.