Review published on July 5, 2012.Reviewed by Katie Lloyd
Tristan Hughes is certainly a writer that knows how to grab a reader’s attention from the very first sentence: ‘I was casting out from the eastern shore of Eye Lake, opposite the second island, when I snagged the top of my grandfather Clarence’s castle.’ From this mysterious beginning, the tone is set perfectly for the beautiful and haunting story of Eye Lake.
Eli lives in a small town in northern Ontario named Crooked River. The town was founded a hundred years ago by his grandfather, Clarence O’Callaghan, who at sixteen years-old arrived by canoe and built a hotel in the wilderness where a new railroad was heading. Eli’s whole life has been spent in this small isolated community, where secrets prevail and the past is mythologized in stories.
To Eli, the Clarence O’Callaghan heralded as a visionary pioneer in the school’s Crooked River history lessons seems very different to the man who wandered down to the river one day and never returned. In the single photograph of the strange castle he built, a solitary pursuit begun in secret in the dense forest, Eli can’t help but notice his grandfather’s expression: ‘To be honest he doesn’t look that over the moon about finishing his castle. There’s a sad, pinched frown on his face and he seems to be staring off to the side of the photo, as if he’s expecting something, or someone, to arrive from that direction. And that’s pretty much the last photo that ever got took of him.’
The unresolved nature of his grandfather’s disappearance haunts Eli, and it’s not the only disappearance to have happened in this small Canadian town. When they were eleven years-old, Eli’s best friend, George, vanished with no explanation. As the town celebrates its centennial, Eli finds himself looking back to the past ‘where the lost things are’.
Tristan Hughes’ evocative language beautifully depicts the setting of Eye Lake, with the wild and eerie landscape perfectly capturing the mystery of the story. The artificial lake, created when Crooked River was detoured to make way for a mine, is a melancholy place full of the ghosts of the past: ‘Its water is brown, the colour of stewed tea, and full of weeds and slime and hundreds and hundreds of drowned trees. In the shallow bays some of them stick out of the water, and in the deeper parts they just lurk there below the surface.’ According to some, its name was given ‘because all the people who’d ever drowned in it looked up from its bed with open eyes’.
Eli makes a superb narrator with a strong narrative voice, and the slow revelation of the interweaving narrative strands is well paced to keep the reader absorbed. The story moves between three time frames; Eli’s present as an adult, the past of his childhood, but also the stories of his grandfather. These sections are retold through conversations Eli listened to as a child between his Uncle Virgil and an ‘old-timer’, Jim, as the two men sat on the porch in the evenings. It’s an effective framing device that gives the tales of his family’s history a mythical feel.
Eye Lake is a relatively short read, and it’s easy to find yourself consuming it rapidly, but it leaves a lasting impression. It’s a lingering and unforgettable story about finding the way home and putting the past to rest.
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