This slow, but sinister tale concerns three generations of the Evans family. The Evans women that is. In 1935, Emily Evans vanishes from her family’s summer cottage, set by a lake in a Minnesota backwater. The woods are searched, the lake is dredged, but there is no sign of Emily – the child their mother dotes on the most. Unable to leave the place their sister vanished, Lucy and Lilith Evans go through their father’s subsequent suicide and nurse their mother till she too dies,
Sixty years later, Lucy the quiet middle sister, starts to write the story of that summer, when everything changed. She writes for her Great-Niece Justine and hopes she will understand what happened and set things right. She knows Justine will find it, because she chooses to leave her the house in her will and it comes at the right time. Justine has two daughters and lives with her boyfriend Patrick, but of late his behaviour has worried her. Does he just care about where she is and what she’s doing, or is he controlling her? The house on the lake becomes their refuge, their only neighbour is a taciturn old man who lives at the lodge.
The author tells her story through Lucy and Justine, across the two timelines, as the old mystery and the new drama play out. It’s a structure that works because the past always illuminates the present. The story starts out slowly, setting the scene and giving the reader a deep understanding of these characters and their motivations. The early chapters are almost hypnotic, then the pace builds. By the time both stories reached a crescendo, I was completely drawn in and my partner had to keep me supplied with of tea. I simply didn’t want to move till I finished it.
There’s an incredible sense of place in the novel. We see the lake at different times. In 1935 it’s summer and the family are there all week, with their father joining them from town at the weekend. We see the place as a child would see it: pools to swim in, trees to climb, forests to explore and under one of the cottages some kittens to play with. The place has a warmth and benign feel to it on the surface, that is at odds with an undercurrent that keeps bubbling up. Lilith wants to be more grown up than she is, dressing up a little and sitting with the slightly older kids. Lucy’s voice is anxious constantly where her sister’s antics are concerned, but it’s not clear where the fear comes from. Is she just afraid of her older sister leaving her behind or is something more sinister at play? There’s also a definite ‘middle child’ feeling to her observation that Lilith is catching her parent’s attention by pushing their religious boundaries, and baby Emily is never away from their mother’s side. Emily is definitely the favoured child, but again there’s something odd about the way their mother clings to her, sleeps with her every night and becomes hysterical if she slips out of sight.
By comparison, when Justine and her girls arrive at the lake house it is winter. Instead of feeling like a place to holiday, the landscape is bleak and the remoteness feels threatening. There’s constant talk in town of storms to come, people preparing to be snowed in and getting their supplies. Instead of being a welcoming family home, the cottage has definitely seen better days and there is a haunted quality to it. It’s not just the portrait of Emily set above the mantle with two candles under it. It’s not just that Justine feels like the child’s dark eyes follow her round the room, there’s a sadness and a sense that something terrible happened here, like an imprint left on the air. Matthew at the lodge house also seems a little scary on the surface, but he does plough the drive for the girls to get to school and Justine finds he’s left her a brand new snow shovel just before a blizzard hits. It felt like the remaining Evans girls has needed a place to heal together, without a man in tow. However, the place itself needed to heal and only this generation of the Evans girls could do it.
There are clues everywhere, and different characters hold separate parts of the puzzle. Justine doesn’t want to be like her mother is, always running to the next place and never feeling settled and at peace. She doesn’t want it for her girls either. When danger does come to the lake for a second time, will Justine be the Evans girl who makes the right choices? This was a slow burning tale, that crept up on me and drew me into this sixty year old mystery. I was compelled to read to the end and find what secrets were buried at the lake, and what sort of closure the remaining Evans girls could find.
Meet The Author
Heather is the author of two novels. Her debut, The Lost Girls, won the Strand Award for Best First Novel and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Her second novel, The Distant Dead, was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel and named one of the ten best mystery/suspense books of 2020 by Booklist. A former antitrust and intellectual property litigator, she traded the legal world for the literary one and earned her MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars in 2011. She lives in Mill Valley, California, where she writes, bikes, hikes, and reads books by other people that she wishes she’d written.