Fishing village’s web of secrets netted in fluid prose
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/07/2020 (769 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Before the publication of her first novel, Y, in 2012, Marjorie Celona was a relative unknown. Though she had published essays and short stories, it was the success of Y — and its selection for the Giller Prize long list — that made critics and readers alike sit up and take notice.
Like Y, Celona’s second novel, How A Woman Becomes A Lake, is not exactly a mystery, but there is still suspense aplenty. The fictional fishing village of Whale Bay is the setting for this story about families and starting over. Foul play is suspected when a woman named Vera goes missing after walking her dog by the lake. Was it Vera’s husband Denny, who fought with her the night before her disappearance?
Another local woman, Evelina, wonders if her angry ex-husband Leo is to blame — he was also at the lake that day with their two young boys, and has a history of violence. Or has Vera run off of her own accord? A local policeman, Lewis, becomes involved in the investigation and in the lives of the suspects, with dramatic consequences .
Currently teaching in the University of Oregon’s MFA Program, Celona grew up on Vancouver Island and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her works have been published in the Sunday Times, the Harvard Review and The O. Henry Prize Stories.
Celona’s simple but fluid prose weaves a kind of spell as it flows across the page, leading the reader through a complicated web of secrets and subplots. The story is told from shifting perspectives — a trend that’s admittedly somewhat hackneyed, but works well in the context of a whodunit.
The characters yearn to be transformed into a better version of themselves. Leo is obsessed with a religious cult and reincarnation, vowing to his sons that he will change. Denny is coming to terms with the failings of his marriage, convinced that if he had another chance, he would do things differently. Evelina scratches lottery tickets and longs for a stable relationship and Lewis contemplates a move to the city, both with the hope of starting over.
But there’s another kind of reincarnation taking place. Celona’s characters take on various animalistic traits, or exhibit animal-like behaviour.
Denny, whose Russian last name Gusev literally means “goose,” is the foolish husband left behind, building a nest of his wife’s clothes in the living room, wallowing in his misery. Evelina, in her peacock feather earrings is the exotic bird, a beautiful, lonely woman dying her hair vibrant hues — flaunting her colours in the hope of attracting a new mate. Leo, a ferocious lion of a man, violent and unpredictable, more than lives up to his name. The policeman, Lewis, is happiest in the company of Scout, Vera’s abandoned dog. Dogs are protectors, like Denny — loyal and affectionate — and it is with this fellow creature that he bonds most deeply. Vera, in her fur-trimmed parks and owl-like glasses, is likened to an owl more than once, eventually becoming a creature of the skies, soaring over those below.
But reinventing oneself proves more difficult than expected; though some of the characters achieve a modicum of change, they must still grapple with their shortcomings and limitations.
The story revolves around a mystery, but at its core How A Woman Becomes A Lake is about human nature. We are all of us flawed; we make mistakes and disappoint those we love. We all have the “subconscious desire to become something astonishing, like the caterpillar that unwittingly becomes a butterfly,” as Celona writes.
Despite the human desire to change, the author seems to be asking, can we ever shed our baser animal instincts?
Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.