Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Review of Eye Lake by Deborah de Bakker

Doesn't this sound like a great book?  read on
Eye Lake  by Tristan Hughes

Coach House Books ($17.95; 200 pages)

Review by Deborah de Bakker

Eye Lake, Tristan Hughes’s new novel, arises straight out of the landscape and history of Atikokan, which Hughes calls Crooked River.

In the 1940s a massive engineering project drained 125 billion gallons of water out of Steep Rock Lake to create an open-pit iron ore mine on the former lake bed. The Seine River was diverted, flooding a large area Hughes calls Eye Lake.

As we know all too well, sooner or later mines close. When this one did, the town was left to fend for itself.

As the novel opens, nature is beginning to reassert itself. Eye Lake is receding and the water is “find[ing] its way home, back where it belongs.”

But, as the water goes down, the past re-emerges for Eli O’Callaghan, the narrator of the story.

Tristan Hughes
The voice of Eli is one of the best things about this book. Eli is regarded as not too bright by the people of Crooked River. But he has fewer preconceived notions about the world than most of us and his observations of people and nature are fresh and detailed. Eli takes life as it comes, but lives with persistent melancholy related to the unresolved disappearances of eccentric childhood friend George McKenzie and of his grandfather Clarence O’Callaghan.

Clarence O’Callaghan was the founder of the town of Crooked River, it’s hotelier and a prospector for iron ore. He disappeared one day without a trace and his remains were never found.

Local history buffs will recognize that Clarence O’Callaghan is a fictionalized version of Tom Rawn, the larger-than-life founder of Atikokan, who arrived by canoe in 1899. Rawn constructed Atikokan’s first building, the Pioneer Hotel, and was also the first to strike a claim for iron ore in the Steep Rock Lake area. Around 1940, he went out prospecting one day and disappeared without a trace.

Hughes has a special affinity for this story, because Tom Rawn was his great uncle, and he grew on hearing all the family lore.

In the novel, it is Eli’s longing to resolve the disappearances of the past, and the things that emerge as Eye Lake recedes that propel the story forward. For many years Eli has been carrying a painful secret about his friend George, until he gains the wisdom to give it up.

This is Hughes’ fourth book, and his experience shows in his clean and confident prose. Eye Lake would be a quick read if you weren’t tempted to linger over Eli’s observations about life. His Uncle Virgil has warned him not to look back, but he realizes that sometimes it’s necessary: “sometimes I’ve got no choice but to look [back], just the same as Lot’s wife and those country singers. I can’t help it—even if it sometimes leaves a sad, scary taste in cmy mouth. Backwards is where the lost things are. And where else are you going to find them?”

This novel is a wonderful contribution to the literature of Northwestern Ontario and I highly recommend it.

Tristan Hughes will be at Thunder Bay Art Gallery on Oct. 19 from 7 – 10 pm for a launch of Eye Lake. This event, which will include a reading from the book, is free and open to the public.

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