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John's family have owned Dulagh (Black Lake), the big mansion in the Irish countryside, for generations. Unfortunately now no longer able to afford its upkeep, John, his wife Marianne and children Kate and Philip, move into a cottage on the estate instead. They still own the house but it'll be run by the government with revenue from opening it to the public. At the time it seems the perfect solution, but the future has plans other than perfection.

Black Lake by Johanna Lane

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A beautiful, touching story about a family's ties to its ancestral home, ties to each other and the effects of change on both.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: May 2014
Publisher: Tinder Press
ISBN: 978-0755396290

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Irish born Johanna Lane is currently a creative writing teacher in New York and, as such, disproves that those who can't do something end up in front of a class. The evidence is before us: Black Lake is Johanna's debut novel and already short-listed for awards; anyone who's read it doesn't need to ask why.

We're absorbed and subsumed from the beginning as it opens with an achingly accurate portrayal of an acutely mentally frail mother and a young daughter with wrenched loyalty between this suddenly illogical loved one and her equally beloved father. We then travel back a year, learning of the events that brought the mother to the edge. Interestingly, it's only once we've gone back to (initially) happier times that these people are named and become John, Marianne, Kate and Philip.

Novels relying on relationships rather than action can sometimes be pretentious or downright boring but in the hands of one who knows how to do it they're a beautiful thing and, yes, Johanna is one who knows.

It's not that nothing happens (indeed things happen!), but we spend a lot of time within the family, watching interactions between them, their former 'staff' and curious visitors, making the alternating-view chapters fly by. Johanna's magic isn't just woven from characterisation but little teasers that compel us to continue. (In one sitting if you're me!)

We're also treated to the history of John's family; the generations that have called Dulagh home and the people whom John feels he's betraying in some ways.

There are some lovely touches, like the well observed embarrassment of a child told off in front of strangers. This is Philip, the more adventurous of the two siblings who develops an Enid Blyton childhood for himself away from the challenges his family are coming to terms with. Kate is older and so more aware of the pressures, her only escape being boarding school.

This isn't just a novel which we enjoy and by which we're haunted; it makes us think as we spot the subtleties. For instance there's a beautifully produced mini-allegory in the family chapel on the lake's island. It used to be in the middle of the island, central but became side-lined to one end by erosion.

Yes, this is a charming story with gems for the thinker while being populated by interesting people for the lover of an easily absorbed tale. As that pretty much covers all the bases I for one am more than satisfied.

Thank you, Tinder Press, for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: If this appeals then we also enthusiastically suggest The Fields by Kevin Maher, another current Irish writer who knows how to write people.

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