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Fiction Small Town & Rural

A Town Called Solace

by (author) Mary Lawson

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Jun 2022
Small Town & Rural, Coming of Age, Literary
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2021
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jun 2022
    List Price

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"I've been telling everyone I know about Mary Lawson . . . Each of her novels is just a marvel" —Anne Tyler
New York Times bestselling author Mary Lawson, acclaimed for digging into the "wilderness of the human heart", is back after almost a decade with a fresh and timely novel that is different in subject but just as emotional and atmospheric as her beloved earlier work.

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. Sixteen-year-old Rose is missing. Angry and rebellious, she had a row with her mother, stormed out of the house and simply disappeared. Left behind is seven-year-old Clara, Rose’s adoring little sister. Isolated by her parents’ efforts to protect her from the truth, Clara is bewildered and distraught. Her sole comfort is Moses, the cat next door, whom she is looking after for his elderly owner, Mrs. Orchard, who went into hospital weeks ago and has still not returned.

Enter Liam Kane, mid-thirties, newly divorced, newly unemployed, newly arrived in this small northern town, who moves into Mrs. Orchard’s house—where, in Clara’s view, he emphatically does not belong. Within a matter of hours he receives a visit from the police. It seems he is suspected of a crime.

At the end of her life, Elizabeth Orchard is also thinking about a crime, one committed thirty years previously that had tragic consequences for two families, and in particular for one small child. She desperately wants to make amends before she dies.

Told through three distinct, compelling points of view, the novel cuts back and forth among these unforgettable characters to uncover the layers of grief, remorse, and love that connect them. A Town Called Solace is a masterful, suspenseful, darkly funny and deeply humane novel by one of our great storytellers.

About the author


  • Winner, OLA Evergreen Award
  • Long-listed, Booker Prize

Contributor Notes

Mary Lawson was born and brought up in a small farming community in Ontario. She is the author of three previous nationally and internationally bestselling novels, Crow Lake, The Other Side of the Bridge, and Road Ends. Crow Lake was a New York Times bestseller and was chosen as a Book of the Year by The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. The Other Side of the Bridge was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Lawson lives in England but returns to Canada frequently.

Excerpt: A Town Called Solace (by (author) Mary Lawson)



There were four boxes. Big ones. They must have lots of things in them because they were heavy, you could tell by the way the man walked when he carried them in, stooped over, knees bent. He brought them right into Mrs. Orchard’s house, next door to Clara’s, that first evening and put them on the floor in the living room and just left them there. That meant the boxes didn’t have necessary things in them, things he needed straight away like pyjamas, or he’d have unpacked them.

The boxes were in the middle of the floor, which made Clara fidgety. Every time the man came into the living room he had to walk around them. If he’d put them against a wall he wouldn’t have to do that and it would have looked much neater. And why would he bring them in from his car and then not unpack them? At first Clara had thought it meant that he was delivering them for Mrs. Orchard and she would unpack them herself when she got home. But she hadn’t come home and the boxes were still there and so was the man, who didn’t belong.

He’d driven up in a big blue car just as the light was starting to fade, exactly twelve days after Rose ran away. Twelve days was a week and five days. Clara had been standing in her usual place at the living-room window, trying not to listen to her mother, who was talking on the phone to Sergeant Barnes. The phone was in the hall, which meant you could hear people talking on it no matter what room you were in.

Clara’s mother was shouting at the policeman. “Sixteen! Rose is sixteen years old, in case you’ve forgotten! She’s a child!” Her voice was cracking. Clara put her hands over her ears and hummed loudly to herself, pressing her face against the window until her nose was squashed flat. Her humming kept breaking up into short bursts because she had trouble breathing when her mother was upset and she kept having to stop and gasp. But humming helped. When you hummed you could feel the sound inside you as well as hearing it. It felt like a bumblebee buzzing. If you concentrated on the feel and the sound you could manage not to think about anything else.

Then there was a scrunching noise, louder than the hum, the noise made by wheels on gravel, and the big blue car rolled into Mrs. Orchard’s driveway. Clara had never seen the car before. It was fancy and had what looked like wings at the back and it was light blue. At another time, a safe time, Clara might have liked it, but this wasn’t a safe time and she wanted everything to be exactly as it had always been. No unfamiliar cars in driveways.

The engine stopped and a strange man got out. He closed the car door and stood staring at Mrs. Orchard’s house. It looked just like it always had; it was painted dark green with white window- and doorframes and there was a big wide porch with a grey-painted floor and white railings. Clara hadn’t given much thought to how the house looked before, but now she realized that it matched Mrs. Orchard perfectly. Old but nice.

The man walked over to the porch, climbed the steps, crossed to the front door, took some keys out of his trouser pocket, unlocked the door and went inside.

Clara was shocked. Where had he got the keys? He shouldn’t have them. Mrs. Orchard had told her there were three sets of two keys (one for the front door and one for the back) and Mrs. Orchard had one, Mrs. Joyce (who came in to clean once a week) had another and Clara had the third. Clara wanted to tell her mother, who was no longer on the phone, but her mother sometimes cried after speaking to the policeman and her face got all red and blotchy and it frightened Clara. And anyway, she couldn’t leave her place at the window. If she failed to keep watch for her, Rose might not come home.

A light came on in Mrs. Orchard’s hall—the glow of it spilled out onto the porch for a moment before the man closed the door. It was getting quite dark inside the house. The living room of Mrs. Orchard’s house was right next to the living room of Clara’s house and both had windows at the side, facing each other, as well as at the front, facing the road. Clara scooted across to the side window (so long as she was at one of the windows, Rose wouldn’t mind which one), arriving just as Mrs. Orchard’s living-room light came on and the man walked in. Clara could see everything that happened and the first thing was that Moses, who’d been hiding under the sofa (he always hid there if anyone but Mrs. Orchard or Clara came into the house), shot across the room and out of the open door at the other end so fast that he’d disappeared before the man was fully through the doorway, so the man couldn’t have seen him. He would have gone into the mud room, Clara knew, and from there out into the garden. The mud room had three doors, one to the living room, one to the kitchen and one to the garden, and the garden door had a cat flap at the bottom. “He skedaddled,” Mrs. Orchard would have said. She was the only person Clara had ever heard use the word “skedaddle.”

Clara herself had been in the mud room an hour or so earlier to give Moses his dinner. She allowed herself to leave her place by the window for a little while morning and night because she had promised Mrs. Orchard she would look after Moses while she was in the hospital. Rose would understand.

“He’ll be happy with you here,” Mrs. Orchard had said. “He trusts you, don’t you, Moses?” She’d been showing Clara the mysteries of the new can opener. It was electric. You had to hold the can in the right place to begin with but it did everything else itself, it even turned the can around, slowly and smoothly, as it cut off the lid.

“A gadget,” Mrs. Orchard had said. “Mostly I don’t hold with gadgets but that old can opener isn’t safe and I don’t want you cutting yourself.” Moses was winding himself around their legs, desperate for his dinner.

“You’d think we starved him,” Mrs. Orchard said. “Now then, the can opener leaves the lid behind—do you see? It’s magnetic. Be careful not to touch the edges of the lid when you pull it off the magnet. You have to pull quite hard and the edges are very sharp. Keep the can in the fridge until it’s empty and then give it a rinse and put it in the garbage outside, not in here or it’ll smell. Mrs. Joyce will deal with the garbage when she comes to clean. I’ve spoken to your mother and she’s happy for you to come in and feed him twice a day for the duration. I won’t be away long.”

But she had been away long, she’d been away weeks and weeks. Clara had run out of cat food several times and had to ask her mother for money so that she could go and buy some more. (This was before Rose disappeared, when everything was normal and Clara could go wherever she liked.) She’d expected Mrs. Orchard to be more reliable, and was disappointed in her. Adults in general were less reliable than they should be, in Clara’s opinion, but she’d thought Mrs. Orchard was an exception.

She could hear her mother moving about in the kitchen. Maybe she was feeling better now.

“Mommy?” Clara called.

After a minute her mother said, “Yes?” but her voice sounded choked up.

“Nothing,” Clara called quickly. “It’s OK.”

The man was moving around the house, switching lights on—Clara saw their pale shadows outside on the lawn. He didn’t bother to switch them off when he left a room. If Clara or Rose had done that, their father would call, “Turn off the light!” But now Rose wasn’t here. Nobody knew where she was. Clara’s mother kept telling Clara that Rose was in Sudbury or maybe North Bay and she was fine, they just wanted her to come home or phone or send them a postcard because it would be nice to know she was OK. Which meant that her mother didn’t actually know if Rose was fine. And which was why she shouted at the policeman because he hadn’t found Rose yet.

With so many lights on in Mrs. Orchard’s house it was getting hard to see anything outside. You couldn’t see much in Clara’s own living room either, but she didn’t switch on the light because then the man would have been able to see her. If you’re in the light you can’t see people who are in the dark, but if you’re in the dark you can see people who are in the light. Rose had told her that. “You can stand a foot from the window,” Rose had said, “and they’ll never know. I watched Mrs. Adams getting undressed the other night. Completely undressed! Naked! Her panties and her bra and everything! She has great big rolls of fat all over and her breasts are like enormous flabby balloons! It’s gross!”

The man was back in the living room, looking at the photographs on Mrs. Orchard’s sideboard. There were lots of them, all in frames. Some of the frames were silver and others were plain wood. Two of the photos were of Mrs. Orchard and her husband when he was still alive, one with them sitting side by side on a sofa and the other of them standing on some steps, and in both of them Mr. Orchard had his arm around Mrs. Orchard. There also used to be a photo of him on his own, leaning against the door frame of a house (not this house) with his hands in his pockets and smiling at the camera. It must have been a beautiful house because there were flowers climbing all over the wall beside him. Mrs. Orchard talked to that photo as if it was Mr. Orchard himself, still alive and in the room, Clara had heard her many times. She didn’t sound sad, just ordinary.

There had also been a photograph of Mr. Orchard standing beside a little boy. The boy was sitting at a table eating his breakfast; you could tell it was breakfast because there was a jar of Shirriff’s marmalade on the table—Clara could just make out the label. Mr. Orchard had a tea towel folded neatly over his arm and a platter heaped with food (Clara had studied it closely and decided it was sausages and bacon, which would fit with it being breakfast) rested on the tea towel. Mr. Orchard was standing very upright and stiff, looking down at the little boy, who was looking up at him and grinning a huge grin. Clara had asked Mrs. Orchard if the boy was her son and Mrs. Orchard had said no, they hadn’t had any children, he was a neighbour’s son, but she and Mr. Orchard had loved him very much. Is it your favourite photo? Clara had asked, and Mrs. Orchard smiled at her and said they were all her favourites. But Clara suspected that wasn’t true because Mrs. Orchard had taken that photo plus the one of Mr. Orchard in the flowery doorway with her when she went into hospital, Clara had noticed they were missing straight away. If you were only going to take two photos you’d take your favourites.

The strange man had stooped over now and was examining the photos. “Don’t touch any of them,” Clara whispered fiercely, but as if he had heard her and was being deliberately disobedient he immediately picked one up. Clara’s fingers clenched tight. “It’s not yours!” she said out loud. He was studying one in a wooden frame. From its location Clara thought it might be the one of Mr. and Mrs. Orchard together but she wasn’t sure—it might have been the one of Mrs. Orchard’s sister, Miss Godwin, who had lived alone in the house before Mrs. Orchard had come to live with her, and who had died a few years ago.

The man put the photograph back on the sideboard with the others. He stood for a minute more, looking at them, then turned and went out of the room and out of the house.

Clara ran back to the front window—you could see Mrs. Orchard’s driveway more clearly from there. For a moment she thought he was leaving but then he went around to the back of the car, opened the trunk and lifted out one of the boxes. One after another he unloaded them, two from the trunk and two from the back seat, and took them into Mrs. Orchard’s living room and put them on the floor. At first Clara had the encouraging thought that they might be full of things for Mrs. Orchard (though what would she want that was so heavy and took up so much room?) and having delivered them he would now get back into his car and drive away. But instead he did something that wasn’t encouraging at all: he took out a suitcase.

Editorial Reviews

“This deftly-structured novel draws together the stories of three people at three different stages in life, each of whom is grappling with loss. We were captivated by A Town Called Solace’s beautifully paced, compassionate, sometimes wry examination of small-town lives.” —2021 Booker Prize Judges
"Completely absorbing... A Town Called Solace pleases at every level. It's a captivating tale suffused with wisdom and compassion." ―Toronto Star
“A lovely, gentle novel with edge.” —Saga (UK)
“That clear-eyed humanism—the sort that is rooted firmly in the reality of life, but holds out a glimmer of potential for a measured, minor-key redemption—is classic Mary Lawson.” —The Globe and Mail
“Lawson's writing is clear and emotive. . . . [A] poignant novel, rightfully recognised by the Booker judges.” —The Telegraph (UK)
“Lawson is a graceful writer whose un-showy style always hides surprising depths.” —Toronto Public Library

“This is Mary Lawson’s fourth novel and I’d recommend a binge immersion. She has carved out a world in northern Ontario that’s vividly, absorbingly real; she captures tones and voices with exactitude in writing that’s idiomatic but never flashy and carries you along from midnight to dawn, oblivious of the time.” —Literary Review (UK)
"Lawson's books are a pleasure to read—they conjure a space where quiet reflection and owning your past mistakes bring gentle rewards; they feel kind and wise and brimful of empathy." —The Times (UK)
"Lawson's writing is such that it appears effortless but, as all the strands come together to create a rich and satisfying tapestry, her genius for storytelling becomes apparent." ―Irish Independent
"Exquisitely poignant." ―Good Housekeeping
You can't get much farther north than the Ontario of Mary Lawson's icy, compelling stories of calamity and redemption. A Town Called Solace keeps you breathless with anxiety, then relief and finally even joy." ―Observer (UK)
A Town Called Solace keeps you breathless with anxiety, then relief and finally even joy.” —Ferdinand Mount, author of Kiss Myself Goodbye: The Many Lives of Aunt Munca

"I've been trying to tell everybody I know about [Mary Lawson]. . . . [Each of her novels is] just a marvel." —Anne Tyler, author of Redhead by the Side of the Road

“Poised, elegant prose, paired with quiet drama that will break your heart. The sort of book that seems as if it has always existed because of its timeless perfection.” —Graham Norton, bestselling author of Holding and A Keeper

“An assured and engaging look at one of my favourite subjects: what we owe to other people. How long must we keep their secrets, and how long do we wait for those we love? Darkened by pain, A Town Called Solace is even so a kindly book; Clara’s lost sister flashes through it like a red-winged blackbird. Warm, clear, and beautifully grounded in the bedrock of the Canadian Shield.” —Marina Endicott, author of Good to a Fault

“I loved reading A Town Called Solace. . . . It’s beautifully written and so finely crafted; told in the kind of prose I most admire because it takes what appears to be complicated and makes it clear. . . . These interwoven stories of three people at different stages of life, and yet each struggling with their own form of loss and grief, will stay with me the way good friendships stay with you. It’s already one of my favourite books of the year.” —Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Other titles by Mary Lawson