Mary Lawson: A Sense of Place

When my first book, Crow Lake, came out, one reviewer commented that the landscape was so central to the story that it was to all intents and purposes another character. That’s how it felt while I was writing it too. All of my novels—including my latest, A Town Called Solace—are set in Northern Ontario, and the landscape is absolutely fundamental to them.

I don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing, or if people the world over are similarly drawn to the landscape they know well, but it seems to me that the wilder and more inhospitable the terrain, the more it gets its hooks into you. Similarly, when it comes to towns and cities, the more remote and restricting the place, the greater the effect it seems to have—at least, if you’re a writer.  

The books I have chosen below all have a powerful sense of place, either in terms of the landscape or of the community where they are set. In addition to that, they are all terrific reads!


I don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing, or if people the world over are similarly drawn to the landscape they know well, but it seems to me that the wilder and more inhospitable the terrain, the more it gets its hooks into you.

Mary Lawson


Sweetland, by Michael Crummey

This is one of my top five books of the past decade. Set in Newfoundland, it is savagely beautiful, with a plot and characters as elemental as the natural forces that surround them.


Through Black Spruce, by Joseph Boyden

Through Black Spruce is set in Northern Ontario, which gives it a particular appeal to me. "Moosonee. End of the road. End of the tracks. I can sense it just beyond the trees, nieces."

The writing matches the landscape, the landscape matches the story, and the narrator, Will Bird, is a match for both.


The Wintermen, by Brit Griffin

The Wintermen is the most tremendous fun. Its tagline is "Forget the western. Welcome to the Northern," and although it does deal with serious themes (climate change among them), it’s very funny, very fast and very, very cold!


In the Skin of the Lion, by Michael Ondaatje

"In winter, snow removes the scent of tar, the scent of pitched cut wood. The Don River floods below the unfinished bridge, ice banging at the feet of the recently built piers. On winter mornings men fan out nervous over the whiteness. Where does the earth end?"

It doesn’t matter where Ondaatje sets his novels, in a desert, in a jungle, on a bridge over the Don River, you are right there.


Open Secrets, by Alice Munro

There is no one to touch Alice Munro when it comes to setting a scene.

Take "Carried Away," one of the brilliant stories in Open Secrets:

"The sheets of floodwater shrank magically back into the bogs, and the leaves shot out of the reddened branches, and barnyard smells drifted into town and were wrapped in the smell of lilacs." 

You’d be forgiven for thinking that nature had been tamed.


A Student of Weather, by Elizabeth Hay

Elizabeth Hay is a stunningly good writer. She can do it all, from the complexities of the human heart to the desperate situations—and desperate places—we can find ourselves in. 

"Ahead lay the worst of the dust storm months, April and May, when dust blew the paint off cars, settled on food while you ate, landed in your mouth while you slept, choked cattle in the fields, and muffled the calls of lost children." 


Summer Gone, by David Macfarlane

Reading Summer Gone made me ache with longing, not just for the landscape but for the past; for childhood innocence, for things that are gone and will not come again, for the place and time that formed you and that you will carry with you to the end of your days.

It is a wonderful book. 


Custodian of Paradise, by Wayne Johnston

Wayne Johnson is a brilliant story-teller and this is an amazing story. It is set, or partly set, in Newfoundland—or rather, on a wild island off the coast, populated by horses, dogs, and—possibly—no one else. So the landscape matters; landscape and memory are practically all there is.

"Out here,"says Fielding the unforgettable central character, "there is no one’s life to save except my own.’"

A remarkable number of fine writers have their roots in Newfoundland, and Wayne Johnson is one of the best.


Clara Callan, by Richard B. Wright

This is one of my favourite novels. It’s set in the 1930s, in small-town Ontario, and Wright sets the scene so gently, so unobtrusively, that you’re unaware that he’s doing it.

It’s the story full of love, frustration, sadness, and beauty, and it’s Canadian to the core. 


About A Town Called Solace:

A Town Called Solace—the brilliant and emotionally radiant new novel from Mary Lawson, her first in nearly a decade—opens on a family in crisis: rebellious teenager Rose been missing for weeks with no word, and Rose's younger sister, the feisty and fierce Clara, keeps a daily vigil at the living-room window, hoping for her sibling's return.

Enter thirtyish Liam Kane, newly divorced, newly unemployed, newly arrived in this small northern town, where he promptly moves into the house next door—watched suspiciously by astonished and dismayed Clara, whose elderly friend, Mrs. Orchard, owns that home. Around the time of Rose's disappearance, Mrs. Orchard was sent for a short stay in hospital, and Clara promised to keep an eye on the house and its remaining occupant, Mrs. Orchard's cat, Moses. As the novel unfolds, so does the mystery of what has transpired between Mrs Orchard and the newly arrived stranger.

Told through three distinct, compelling points of view—Clara's, Mrs. Orchard's, and Liam Kane's—the novel cuts back and forth among these unforgettable characters to uncover the layers of grief, remorse, and love that connect families, both the ones we're born into and the ones we choose. A Town Called Solace is a masterful, suspenseful and deeply humane novel by one of our great storytellers.





February 22, 2021
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