Black Lake by Johanna Lane

In brief: This is the story of the Campbells, owners of the beautiful grand house, Dulough. After financial circumstances force the family to move out, the ties that bind them begin to unravel.

The good: Incredible sense of atmosphere.

The not-so-good: This is a slim volume where every word must be savoured – it’s not something you can truly appreciate in one sitting.

Why I chose it: Sent to me by Jin at Little, Brown and Company who has an eye for great books – thank you!

Year: 2014

Pages: 216 (ARC)

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Setting: Ireland

My rating: 8.5 out of 10

Black Lake contains many of the plot elements that I look for in a moody autumn read: big house, failing family dynamics, a creepy history and a moody landscape. Don’t be put off by the slim size of Johanna Lane’s debut novel – there’s enough in Black Lake to have you pondering while savouring every chapter. This is not a book to be read lightly, you’ll want to analyse every statement and reaction by the characters.

Black Lake is the story of the Campbell family, who own and live in Dulough, a massive house and estate by the ocean in Ireland. It’s a moody place – the family chapel (now decrepit) is on an island only reachable by foot at certain tides, the ballroom on the third floor was never finished and sealed off for eternity and there’s a sense of eeriness and loss to the whole place. It’s no wonder then that John Campbell in the face of rising debts turns Dulough across to the Irish government for upkeep. But to do this, the family must sacrifice their home and move to a small cottage. Life wasn’t happy for the Campbells prior to this – John is sunk in the misery of his debt while his wife Marianne is sad, but oblivious to the fate of Dulough. Their children, Kate and Philip, sense the unease but are powerless to stop it.

The book starts after Dulough has had its first summer of visitors as a mother and daughter hide away from life. No names are used and this immediately sets up a sense of foreboding that something nasty has happened to someone – but who? The sense of isolation experienced by the daughter is palpable and the tension rises to a crescendo as the guards are called in. But what happened for this to occur? For that, Lane takes us back in time to the setting up and opening of Dulough as a stately home. Told through the eyes of John and Philip, there’s again that sense of loss. Philip tries to overcome it by building a hut on the island. John, being older, can’t do that, but he can hide away from the world in his study, his legacy at Dulough. His relationship with Marianne becomes even more strained until an event on opening day will change the family forever. It’s made even worse by the local townspeople seeing everything, as they and the Campbells have had a strained relationship since the first Philip Campbell evicted several farmers during the Potato Famine. This only makes Dulough and the Campbells feel more isolated.

I liked the way the book started with the ending – it set a mood of suspense, of ‘but how did it end up like this?’ that meant I was eager to learn more in a macabre kind of way. The story has a feeling of melancholy that lurks over the whole novel, but it is still compulsive reading. How each of the characters cope in different ways is interesting and while I didn’t particularly sympathise with any of them, I felt I could understand what they did. The character study by Lane is particularly strong and the sense of setting powerful. In Dulough, she has created a crumbling house with a Gothic feel, from the boarded up ballroom to the deep black lake. As a reader, I knew something bad would happen – but when?

This is a solid debut – Lane has a talent for atmosphere and characterisation. I’d be interested in reading her second novel.

Black Lake is now available in the UK and Australia, and will be released on May 20 in the US.

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