Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2009

Crow Lake (2002), by Mary Lawson

Crow LakeLast week I went to a conference at the NGV and saw a piece of sculpture by a noted American artist.  It was a huge cube, like a cage, with intentionally crude furniture, glass balls and a severed hand inside it.  It was very sombre, and as we stood and pondered it, it made me think of dreadful evils in the world like the Holocaust, institutional child abuse, and those awful instances of men keeping children in underground cellars for years on end.   I was quite astonished to discover that it was a response to the artist’s childhood discovery that her father was having an affair.  Such a response seemed somewhat intemperate to me.

I remembered this feeling of faint distaste when I finished reading Crow Lake this morning.  It is not, of course, that one wants others to suffer more, but rather that one would rather that they had a sense of perspective.  Crow Lake is 295 pages of what seems to me to be a rather predictable plot based on a misunderstanding between siblings, a misunderstanding which is invested with the status of tragedy.   The process of growing up and coming to terms with life in the genre known as bildungsroman always runs this risk of overdoing the angst…

Years ago, I cut this wise little poem out of a magazine.  I’m fond of dogs rather than cats, but the emotion is the same.  I don’t know who it’s by, possibly Judith Viorst, a poet who places the miseries of daily life in context without sacrificing her sense of empathy:

Our cat died.
Because this unbearably
Underlined for us
The transience of happiness, life,
You weeping
Dug his shallow grave;
I weeping
Laid him there.
Warm still.

(By mistake I caught sight of you afterwards.
Head in hands in the greenhouse.)
A stone is over him.
A forget-me-not plant at his head.

Proportion please.
The nations are scarlet with pain.
(Rhodesia, Vietnam, the Berlin Wall).
He was only a cat.
But love anywhere is love.
And we are only human.

There are dozens of effusive reviews of Crow Lake and it won the Alex Prize in 2003.  This was an award I discovered through the Book Awards Reading Challenge and the quotation below (from the blurb on the Alex Awards website) sums up Crow Lake well, in my opinion…

The Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.

The reviews I browsed mostly reveal the plot, but since any intelligent reader can predict it anyway, I don’t think that matters much.

Author: Mary Lawson
Title: Crow Lake
Publisher: Chatto and Windus, 2002. (paperback)
ISBN: 9780701173449
Source: Personal copy ($2, from Brotherhood Books, and just as well.)


  1. I have just received an email from my neighbour saying that they had to put their dog down today, It’s sad. I like the lines:

    But love anywhere is love.
    And we are only human.

    We know these are only dogs or cats BUT they do represent love to us and their deaths make us sad.


    • It’s a lovely poem. It’s nice to give a copy of it to friends in this situation, because often people feel a bit embarrassed about being upset. Just substitute dog for the cat; the sentiment is the same. Lisa


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