A Town Called Solace, Mary Lawson

Shortness is an aesthetic quality. This is not because short books are more concise, work better for certain sorts of subjects, encourage taut plots, or anything else like that. Short books do achieve those things, at their best, but they are not inherent in shortness, anymore than longness inevitably leads to Franzen-esque digressions about the state of the North American songbird population.

Short books set different expectations. And just as we can admire a writer’s ability to control their work over many hundreds of pages, similar acclaim should be given to the skill of making a whole story work in such limited space. There are many geniuses of this form: Turgenev and Balzac, Tobias Wolfe and Penelope Fitzgerald. It is as much a marvel that The Great Gatsby could be so morally and narratively complete in such a short space as that À la recherche du temps perdu was able to carry on for as long as it did, like a great bridge that spanned a space that defied the beliefs of engineering.

So, size matters, as does story. Laura Miller wrote twenty years ago about how American literary fiction was so obsessed with prose style — the ability to write Joycean sentences — that plot and character were forgotten. And when these things are considered, there seems to be a hierarchy of subjects. Throughout the twentieth century, women’s fiction was often under rated because it told domestic stories, as if domesticity was, rather than the centre of most of our lives, some sort of irrelevance.

This is all prelude to explaining what sort of novel A Town Called Solace is, Mary Lawson’s fourth book. I heard about it when it failed to make the Booker Prize shortlist. What better endorsement can there be? The new fiction shelves are so full. We have to have some criteria for picking from all those heartwarming, moving, accomplished etc stories written in luminous, magical, “not a word out of place” etc prose.

Who knows why this book didn’t get shortlisted. Perhaps because A Town Called Solace is decidedly domestic. It’s a small-town novel, full of small town people, and, perhaps oddly given what it’s about, the sort of plot that often gets set in small towns too. Lawson seems to be very careful about getting her details correct, so perhaps these things do indeed happen in smaller communities. King of the Badgers is a very different novel about — in one of its plot lines — similar happenings.

Being domestic isn’t — and never was — a mark of quality either way. We are concerned with how well done it is, not whether what it is can be well done at all. There can be good and bad writers of all subjects, as Forster explained:

A mirror does not develop because an historical pageant passes in front of it. It only develops when it gets a fresh coat of quicksilver—in other words, when it acquires new sensitiveness; and the novel’s success lies in its own sensitiveness, not in the success of its subject matter.

All of which to say that Mary Lawson has written a highly sensitive novel, full of setting, place, and above all detail and tone that moves the story along. There is a progression of mood as well as of the story dynamics. Despite the subject matter, there’s never quite high-wire level tension; instead, by choosing the perspectives of an old lady, a child, and a quiet man having a subdued mid-life crisis, Lawson gives us the submerged tension of small-town domestic drama. None of this makes it a less intense or satisfying sort of novel.

Quite the opposite. By telling her story in this way, and being more concerned with detail than style, Lawson has taken her story very close to life indeed. In fact, details are the core of her style. Lawson works in the plain style — where the word does not draw attention to itself — and consequently is able to make ordinary objects like suburban word carvings, photographs, packing boxes, carry the weight of the story without using them to constantly elevate her work to metaphor or poetry. It is the sort-of equivalent of the way television like Mad Men pays so much attention to period detail, only it has narrative importance rather than just being a gallery to set mood.

This, then, is the art of selection, the small focus on daily life that can be seen in different ways — the hideous cafe, the work of a roofer, the dust where a photo frame used to sit — and thereby become part of how the story moves, not just how we are constantly immersed in Northern Ontario in 1972, although the immersion is certainly well accomplished. Being able to work through all this detail means we constantly feel like the narrative is moving, and the general tone of the story is right, without endless labelling, signposting, or other irritating forms of exposition.

The ending is not happy for everyone, but it is a restoration of sorts. Some characters progress. Some do not. That, too, avoids the neatness of a thriller or tragedy or social comedy or whatever, but takes the novel closer to life, closer to realism. In some ways, then, A Town Called Solace isn’t a terribly original novel, just a very good one. The idea that great art always has to be new is a fashionable one, but not convincing.

The way books gets blurbed is enough to put you off reading modern fiction ever again. About this novel they say, “Mary Lawson explores the relationships of three people brought together by fate and the mistakes of the past in this gripping, darkly domestic tale.” Lawson’s first book was “a tense family drama”. Ignore all this. I would have been much less likely to read the book if I’d taken it seriously. Instead whet your appetite with the way Lawson described the book’s origin.

A Town Called Solace began in my mind with a little girl standing at the window, watching a man carrying four big boxes, one after another, into the living room of the house next door.

From here the timeline moves around (not like a post-modern headache of a novel, more like A Happy Marriage, by Rafael Yglesias) and we are, like the little girl, constantly intrigued by the man and his boxes, and also by what’s happening in the girl’s house, and in the big city far away, and in the mind of an old lady a few weeks, months, and ultimately, decades ago.

Part of what makes this so satisfying though is that Lawson manages the structure so that we leave the book more concerned about the future than the past, just as immersed in the place and the people as in the now resolved plot. Lawson says she has trouble coming up with ideas, and that she’s a character driven novelist, in which case, we can only hope she decides to write something more about these people in this place. Once a writer is on to a good thing it often pays to keep it running. That, too, cuts against the fashion for originalism — all the more reason to hope Lawson is working on it.

A Town Called Solace (US link)

Aspects of the Novel, by E.M. Forster (US link)

King of the Badgers (US link)

A Happy Marriage (US link)

For more on the plain style, read my review of The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter

The Common Reader
The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, by Beatrix Potter
Is there a better piece of writing about the pleasures of rain? Jeremy Fisher is a domestic there-and-back-again story based on a traditional, rural, English form of epicurean values. It's a books about upper-middle-class characters, but not a book that believes that social status matters. Happiness is living without the constraints of other people's ne…
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