Fiction – hardcover; Chatto & Windus; 320 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Mary Lawson’s Road Ends, which was longlisted for this year’s Folio Prize, is set in the fictional Canadian town of Struan, in Northern Ontario. It forms part of a loose trilogy comprising Crow Lake (2002) and The Other Side of the Bridge (2006), neither of which I’d read.
The book charts the slow disintegration of a large, dysfunctional family when the eldest daughter decides to leave home to pursue her dream of living abroad. I read it back-to-back with Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and couldn’t help but notice similarities in the way it looks at the impact on family dynamics and psychology following a major (unwelcome) change.
But unlike Ng’s best-selling novel, Road Ends has a rather old-fashioned feel to it — it’s set in the 1960s but you could easily mistake it for a much earlier time period. Part of that is due to the prose style and “voice” of the characters, but perhaps also because of its small town setting where the modern world has yet to make an impact.
Road Ends is comprised of three story strands narrated by three different characters each with a strong and distinctive voice: Twenty-one-year-old Megan Cartwright, who moves to London in the Swinging Sixties; her brother, Tom, who cuts short a promising academic career to grieve for the loss of his best friend through suicide; and her father, Edward, an emotionally distant man, who is a poor parent but a fine, upstanding citizen in a position of power (he’s the local bank manager).
From the outset it is clear that this is a family that is out-of-control. The house is full of children — all boys — whom shout and fight and break things. Megan spends her life looking after them and maintaining some kind of order, but she dreams of bigger things and wants to escape the drudgery of domestic servitude and to see something of the world. When she announces that she’s going to London, no one believes her — until she packs her suitcase and goes.
Her early exploits in London cover the whole gamut of ups and downs, but when she finally finds her dream job running a small boutique hotel she comes into her own. She falls in with a nice group of people and finds fulfillment in her job (if not her love life)
Meanwhile, the family left behind goes to rack and ruin. The mother is distant, and too wrapped up in her babies, to really care about anything other than the newest addition:
It came to Tom suddenly that his mother didn’t actually care for her children very much once they passed the baby stage. It was just babies she liked. Maybe that was why she kept having more.
The father feels trapped, but instead of dealing with the situation he locks himself away in his study and lets things unfold of their own accord, even if that means there is no food for the children to eat or clean clothes for them to wear:
Just for the record, I did not want any of this. A home and a family, a job in a bank. It was the very last thing I wanted. I am not blaming Emily. I did blame her for a long time but I see now that she lost as much as I did. She proposed to me rather than the other way around, but she is not to blame for the fact that I said yes. That phrase they use in a court of law—“The balance of his mind was disturbed”—sums it up very well. I married Emily while the balance of my mind was disturbed.
It is Tom — shy, awkward and lonely — who must confront the realities of the family’s problems, particularly when he notices that young Adam, the youngest brother, has a peculiar odour, because he hasn’t had a bath in weeks, and is thin and hungry, because no one has bothered to feed him. In today’s world, this would constitute child abuse.
A gentle read
Despite this tale sounding rather horrid — all that neglect! all those people who don’t take responsibility! all that sexism! — I found it quite a gentle, almost soothing read. It probably helps that none of the characters are deliberately bad or cruel, though they do behave in inexplicable ways without taking personal responsibility for anything and I was occasionally angered by Edward’s pomposity and lack of backbone. Even Tom, who realises that things cannot go on in such a dire way, made me mad, because instead of sorting things out himself he decides to drag Megan back into the very mess she tried to escape.
But as much as this is a book about marriage, parenthood and family — think the kinds of novels Anne Tyler might write if she joined forces with Anita Shreve — it’s also about being an émigré, for Megan’s story is very much about what it is like to be caught between two countries — and two lives. At times it reminded me of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, though Megan’s story is a little too “polished” — things go her way too easily — and everything is tied up too neatly at the end.
Yet Road Ends is a rather heartwarming — and heartbreaking — novel. Occasionally it is frustrating and anger-inducing, sometimes it is surprising, but mostly it’s compelling and such a lovely, subtle read, that I didn’t really want the story to end; I had such a great time in the company of these well-drawn, all too-human characters…