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Fiction Literary

How a Woman Becomes a Lake

by (author) Marjorie Celona

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2020
Literary, Family Life, Contemporary Women
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2020
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2020
    List Price

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Shortlisted for the 2021 Crime Writers of Canada Award for Best Crime Novel
From the Giller-nominated author of Y comes How a Woman Becomes a Lake, a taut, suspenseful novel about the dark corners of a small town, and the secrets that lurk within...

It's New Year's Day and the residents of a small fishing town are ready to start their lives anew. Leo takes his two young sons out to the lake to write resolutions on paper boats. That same frigid morning, Vera sets out for a walk with her dog along the lake, leaving her husband in bed with a hangover.

But she never returns. She places a call to the police saying she's found a boy in the woods, but the call is cut short by a muffled cry. Did one of Leo's sons see Vera? What are they hiding about that day? And why are they so scared of their own father?

Told from shifting perspectives, How a Woman Becomes a Lake is a compelling, lyrical novel about family, new beginnings, and costly mistakes, and asks, what do you do when the people who are meant to love you the most, fail?

About the author

Marjorie Celona received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and recipient of the John C. Shupes Fellowship. Her stories have appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Glimmer Train, and Harvard Review. Born and raised on Vancouver Island, she lives in Cincinnati.

Marjorie Celona's profile page

Excerpt: How a Woman Becomes a Lake (by (author) Marjorie Celona)

Chapter One


He found the car in the second parking lot at Squire Point, doors splayed, engine on. It was a fancy car—something Lewis Côté could never dream of owning. He climbed into the driver’s seat, scanned the expensive leather, ran his hands over the plush black steering wheel, and took the keys out of the ignition. Through the car’s open doors, the snow fell around him, landed on his thighs, and blew into his hair. Someone had drawn a pattern in the condensation on the passenger side window—crosshatches, as if to play tic-tac-toe. Lewis rooted through the glove compartment, checked under the seats, spun around. The back seat was covered in grey and white dog hair, so Lewis whistled and clapped, and after a few minutes, a nice-looking dog—a husky, perhaps—emerged from the woods, its fur caked with snow.

“Hey, boy,” Lewis said, patting the dog’s head and letting the dog lick his hands. “Help me out here.”

They walked together, Lewis having fashioned a makeshift leash from a rope he had in the trunk of his patrol car. The trail was icy and Lewis’s boots slid out from under him. He walked like a duck to keep his balance. The cold air slivered his lungs. There was no reason to draw his gun, but his free hand hovered by his hip, in case.

An hour ago, a woman named Vera Gusev had called the station from the Squire Point pay phone, saying that she had found a little boy. She was at the second parking lot, she said, the boy keeping warm in her car. He had been separated from his father in the woods and was cold but fine--and that was all she said. The sound of her dropping the receiver, it clanging off the side of the phone booth, a muffled cry that could have been “hey” or “wait,” then nothing. Lewis had driven cautiously to the scene, the roads slick. New Year’s Day was a quiet one on the job, everyone asleep, hung over, or in jail from whatever nonsense they’d gotten up to the night before. He cursed himself now for taking his time.

When had it ever been this cold? The blizzard had come at the end of November, blanketing the whole region, and then the temperature had plunged. All anyone could talk about was the weather. Not in eighty years had so much snow fallen. Most people in Whale Bay didn’t even own proper winter coats. Usually it snowed once or twice a year, an inch or two, and melted by the morning. The blizzard was fun at first. School cancelled; everyone out walking. The army was called in to salt the roads. No plows—there wasn’t money for that. Anyone from the East Coast—or the Midwest, as was the case with Lewis—thought this was a non-event, silly even. The high comedy of shovelling a driveway with a cookie sheet, a casserole dish, the lid of a garbage can. The snow was so high that children knocked down foot-long icicles from the street lights and used them as swords.

Only one death so far: a man whose car had filled with carbon monoxide as he waited for his windshield to defrost, the tailpipe clogged with snow. There wasn’t much sympathy for him. Should’ve known better. Maybe suicide then. A homeless man had almost died of hypothermia, but was fine—had been interviewed by the local news while eating a dish of ice cream in his hospital bed.

Of course, the requisite traffic accidents and power outages. A fist fight in a grocery store over the last carton of milk. Some looting. A collapsed roof, a destroyed greenhouse. Mostly, though, the eerie silence that accompanies so much snow, and the inevitable camaraderie from enduring an out-of-the-ordinary event. A return to kindness, Lewis thought. The simplicity of survival. He had missed the snow.

He was twenty-four, attractive yet baby-faced, unmarried and without children—still a boy in some ways, even though he carried a baton and a gun. He got a little thrill when he told people what he did for a living. “So young!” they said and he wanted to say, “Do you think I haven’t paid my dues? Do you think I don’t deserve it?” He wondered when he would stop being young. When he would cease to be the baby of the department. When all the joshing, the incessant joking around about his boyish looks, would stop. He felt himself to be a deeply earnest person. A good person. Even as a boy, he had a knack for reading people, a skill he attributed to his father, who was crazy in an invisible, functional way, so that Lewis had spent much of his life trying to piece together what had made his childhood so fraught, and why as a child he had been so nervous and unhappy. His mother had died so long ago that he had almost no memories of her, but there was an uncle he planned to contact someday, who he hoped could provide answers. But Lewis hadn’t gotten around to it yet. It seemed like such a huge undertaking: to go after the truth like that.

It was snowing again. It had been snowing all day and the forest was silent except for Lewis’s footfalls and the heavy panting of the dog. The dog pulled hard on the leash and Lewis had to brace himself on a tree trunk so he wouldn’t spill forward.

“Whoa, boy,” he said, then again more forcefully, snapping the leash a bit. But the dog was unrelenting and led him off the trail and into the woods. The snow fogged his glasses and Lewis could taste it on his lips, metallic and cold. He hoped he wasn’t about to uncover some grisly scene, though he did feel something bubbling up within him, something like excitement. He looked behind him, trying to memorize his way back to the trail. Squire Point was a confusing place. There were two parking lots with trailheads—both led to a large reservoir with a swimming hole that locals called “the lake”; the second trail cut through a small campground. The trails were unmarked and it was easy to go in circles. People often got lost, but all were usually found within a few hours. There were only so many ways a person could go.
“Vera Gusev? Hello?”

Why come out here in such bad conditions? Why not stay home? The dog leapt over a fallen tree and Lewis scrambled over it, caught his pant leg on a branch. He felt the snow creep into his socks, cold water between his toes. His hands burned. He passed the abandoned campground, and then he and the dog were standing at the edge of the lake, frozen over and covered with a dusting of snow. The dog whined and pulled against the leash, wanting to go out onto the ice.

“No, no,” he said to the dog. “Bad idea.”

Although the snow was falling fast, Lewis thought he could make out a trail of footprints on the ice. He squinted, snow in his eyelashes. Nothing. The footprints were gone. He hoped Vera and the boy hadn’t wandered onto the ice. People thought frozen lakes were stable, and they walked out onto them. People did this sort of thing all the time. They drove snowmobiles and trucks onto lakes! Lewis had done this as a boy every winter, in his father’s red pickup truck, on Lake Mendota. Even there, two or three people fell in every year, fishermen mostly, their bodies pulled out—sometimes alive, sometimes not—covered in icicles. That was the trouble with frozen lakes. There was no way to tell the thickness of the ice, nor the depth of the water beneath.

“Okay, boy,” Lewis said to the dog, and the dog sat, obediently, by Lewis’s side. The snow stopped, as if someone had flicked a switch. Now that the sky had cleared, Lewis could see the great iced-over expanse of the lake, a pale blue colour like a wolf’s eye, and the bright swatches of beach sand that lay below the ice, looking almost tropical despite the cold. A bird loitered on a branch, repeating its song. Lewis put his hand on top of the dog’s warm head. His hand seemed to mould perfectly to the shape of the dog’s head, as if it was meant to be there, meant to fill the emptiness of his hand. How did anyone get through life without a dog? He’d had a border terrier when he was a boy, and perhaps that was why he was largely okay, despite what he had been through with his father. Someone had to love you unconditionally in order for you to survive. Someone had to love you as much as you needed to be loved.

He scanned the lake, but there was no one. No signs of anyone having fallen through. He looked at the dog, tongue out, expectant. He heard the rumble of an airplane overhead. What can you see that I can’t see? What do you know that I don’t know? If Vera Gusev and the lost boy were out there, in the forest or under the ice, the lake, the dog, the plane, the sky—they gave away nothing.

Editorial Reviews

A Globe and Mail book to get you through till spring
A Chatelaine Thriller to read this winter
One of CBC's “40 great books to read this season”
Shortlisted for the 2021 Crime Writers of Canada Award for Best Crime Novel
Praise for How a Woman Becomes a Lake:
“Celona’s icily unsentimental novel offers less predictable riches, unspooling instead into the complicated lives of her protagonist . . . The fate of [Vera] is gradually made known through a drip-feed of unconventional reveals, but for the reader its ramifications have the shock value of cracking ice. An excellent novel about the indelible damage dysfunctional parenting can inflict on a vulnerable child.”
The Daily Mail
“[H]aunting . . . How a Woman Becomes a Lake [has] both the artful structure and the tension of a crime novel.”
Quill and Quire

“[How a Woman Becomes a Lake is a] novel to feed your heart and mind. . . . This crisply constructed novel . . . is a meditation on family, loyalty and memory, [and] a thoughtful examination of how lives collide.”
Toronto Star
“To the reader picking up this book for the first time: I envy you, such is the pleasure, depth, and beauty of the journey you’re about to take. Haunting, deeply felt, ingeniously constructed, How A Woman Becomes a Lake is a supremely satisfying novel, masterful on every level. I could not put it down.”
—Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Dreamers
“This is a rare book that is satisfying in every possible way. Beautifully written, clear-eyed and compassionate in its examination of character, it's also a gripping mystery that kept me reading late into the night. The story, and the questions it raises about love, loss, and family, will stay with me for a long time.”
—Leah Stewart, author of What You Don't Know About Charlie Outlaw
“This book has moved into me; it occupies and haunts me. Marjorie Celona writes with an empathy that manages to be both enveloping and exact. How a Woman Becomes a Lake is about what it’s like to long for your most secret self to be understood, while fearing that such understanding might kill you. It is a feral, echoing, complicatedly vulnerable work of art.”
—Sara Peters, author of I Become a Delight to My Enemies
“A woman’s disappearance sends out ripples of enduring questions. What happens when darkness is handed down from one generation to the next? How do secrets kept out of love warp the people who keep them?  Marjorie Celona wraps powerful ideas about care-taking and morality around a tight, elegantly suspenseful story. This is a beautifully written book that I read compulsively, in a single sitting, all the way through to its haunting end.”
—Alix Ohlin, author of Dual Citizens
"How a Woman Becomes a Lake is a deeply empathetic and emotionally astute novel that reads like a thriller. Everyone in this troubling story is doing their best. And every one of Marjorie Celona's sentences glints with an ice crystal's understated beauty. This is a profound and generous-hearted page-turner.” 
—Deborah Willis, author of The Dark and Other Love Stories
“It is not lightly that I say: I could not put this book down. Celona’s writing possesses the clearness and poetry of a compassionate, all-seeing ghost. Each time a character crossed the page, I felt absorbed by their consciousness, invited to see the story from a fresh, insistent perspective. On the one hand, How a Woman Becomes a Lake offers a felt study of guilt, grief and blame. On the other, the story will challenge your conceptions of love, which can be greedy, as well as sacrificial and absolving.”
—Eliza Robertson, author of Demi-Gods
“A thriller with stunning writing and real honesty about grief.”
—Stella Duffy, author of Theodora
“Poignant and lyrical, Celona makes finding out what happened to Vera a burning curiosity for the reader. More importantly, she makes what happens to all the characters feel meaningful.” 
“[While How a Woman Becomes a Lake] does come under the heading of ‘crime’, it is also a beautifully written exploration of grief, vulnerability, guilt and violence. Becoming a lake (just in case you were wondering) means to rest, to be still, to be separate, not just from others but from yourself. What it means in the context of this deeply satisfying book . . . well you’ll just have to read it to find out!”
Readings (AU)
“A highly original, beautifully crafted literary thriller packed with characters that linger long in the mind.”
The Irish Independent
“Celona has the courage to take her time, letting us have a leisurely rummage inside her characters’ heads, refusing to be trammelled by the usual rhythms of the whodunnit; and yet she manages to pull off twists worthy of Harlan Coben . . . It’s a rarity: a book confected with satisfying artfulness that feels like a slice of real life.” ­
The Daily Telegraph, five starred review
“Cool, clear, melancholy . . . the mystery at the heart of the story is how lives can so easily fall into loneliness and disconnection. A beautifully sad read.”
The Sunday Express, five starred review

“. . . an unconventional and lyrical crime novel. . . . [How a Woman Becomes a Lake]’s extraordinary sympathy and empathy is not at odds with its moral clarity and, for all it deals with tragedy, it is an uplifting read.”
Morning Star (UK)

“An absorbing read from the get-go, Marjorie Celona’s [How a Woman Becomes a Lake] succeeds on multiple levels—as character-driven explorations of fear and love and loss, as domestic thriller, and as page-turner mystery.”
Vancouver Sun

“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 Winnipeg Free Press

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