Friday 2 May 2014

Black Lake by Johanna Lane

For generations, the Campbells have lived happily at Dulough, an idyllic, rambling estate on the windswept coast of Ireland. But upkeep has drained the family coffers. 
Faced with the heartbreaking possibility of having to sell, John Campbell makes a very difficult decision; to keep Dulough he will turn the estate into a tourist attraction. 
He and his wife, daughter and son will move from the luxury of the big house to a small, damp caretaker's cottage. The upheaval strains the already tenuous threads that bind the family, and when a tragic accident befalls them, long-simmering resentments and unanswered yearnings are forced to the surface. 
As each character is given a turn to speak, their voices tell a complex and fascinating story about what happens when the upstairs becomes the downstairs, and the legacy that remains when family secrets are revealed.

Black Lake by Johanna Lane was published on 1 May 2014 by Tinder Press and is the author's first novel.

The story is set on the fictional estate of Dulough, situated deep in the desolate countryside of County Donegal in Ireland.  Dulough was built in the mid 1800s by an incomer; Scottish landowner Philip Campbell. Campbell built the house and gardens in this spot after searching for the ideal place, he cruelly evicted the tenant farmers who had previously toiled on the land, not caring where they would live once he had turned them out of their homes.

Campbell's ancestor John Campbell, his Dublin born wife Marianne and their two children Kate and Philip continue to live on the estate, but times are hard. The Celtic Tiger has bitten and John has had to sacrifice many things in order to stay on the estate. After doing a deal with the Irish government, the family now reside in a small cottage on the estate whilst tourists and visitors wander around the big house as tour guides give them a potted history of the place.

Johanna Lane tells the story using the voices of the family which enables the reader to learn the facts, but through different eyes which adds a depth to the story that may have been missing from a single narrator.

The Campbells have to deal with tremendous loss throughout this novel. They lose their home, they see their belongings packed away and replaced by things that the Government officers consider to be more fitting to the surroundings. Signs appear in their garden informing them of what each plant is called - the plants that they planted, and grew and nutured - and notices telling them to keep off the grass - their grass.  The biggest and most tragic loss has the most impact on the family, and although it is obvious from the start of the novel what has happened, it is not until almost half way through that the reader learns of the circumstances.

I was totally immersed  by this beautifully told story of loss and family. Each of the characters are intricate and detailed in their creation; the contrast between the well-mannered and dignified John and his emotional and sometimes flamboyant wife who love each other, yet don't seem to know each other is expertly done. Young Philip's sense of loss is palpable, he struggles to come to terms with this new style of living and creates his own hideaway, somewhere of his very own, and it is this which ultimately becomes the downfall of the family.

Johanna Lane incorporates the history of the area into the story with the introduction of the diaries kept by the first Philip Campbell's wife. From these, Marianne discovers the true horror of the evictions, and how the local people suffered first through the Famine and then by being banished from their homes. It is this truth that contributes to Marianne's eventual breakdown, and the knowledge that John hid these facts from her for so many years, in fact he lied about the history of Dulough.

For me though, the true star of Black Lake is the wild desolate beauty that is Donegal itself. Johanna Lane has captured the dramatic landscape, the windswept bogs, the majesty of the mountains and the incredible aura of this area perfectly. My mother is from Donegal, her childhood home is not far away from Glenveagh National Park - the place that Dulough is based on. I spent every summer in Donegal, exploring the countryside, dodging the rain, traipsing through the springy heather, and be assured that Johanna Lake has expertly painted this wondrous and most beautiful of places, just reading it brought back memories so vivid that I could almost smell the turf burning.

A beautiful story, so wonderfully created that deals with unbearable losses and burdens, with intricate family dynamics in a setting that perfectly hosts the story.

My thanks to Tinder Press - my review copy of Black Lake came via

Johanna Lane was born in Ireland and studied English Literature at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where she was awarded the Hemingway Prize for her short fiction. Upon graduating, the University awarded her the Robert T. Jones Graduate Fellowship to study in the U.S. and she chose Columbia's Creative Writing MFA programme. There, she was one of six students from the School of the Arts selected to teach undergraduate writing. As a work in progress, her first novel, COMING IN FROM THE SEA, was short-listed for the University of East Anglia's Charles Pick Fellowship. She teaches composition and creative writing in New York.

Follow her on Twitter @Johanna_Lane

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  1. Lovely review Anne, this sounds an excellent read.

  2. Sounds fantastic!

  3. You've summarised this novel beautifully and good to have the descriptions of landscape authenticated by someone in the know