Mary Lawson’s third novel Road Ends is set over a three year period in the 1960’s. The story alternates between the small (fictional) Northern Canadian town of Struan and London. Lawson’s descriptions of the Canadian Landscape are breath-taking, making for a wonderful sense of place.
“Everything monochrome, shades of white and grey. Snake fences tacking their way down the edges of the fields, every rung neatly capped with snow. Dark, snow-laden trees beyond the fields. Sky a flat and endless grey. All around him snow stretched pure and clean and untouched apart from the path of the snowplough, a scar across a perfect face. Now and then a couple of crows lifted from the trees like scraps of charred paper, floated for a moment in the still air, cawing harshly to each other, then dropped back into the woods. No other sound”
Twenty-one year old Megan Cartwright has never been outside the small Canadian town where she was born; and still lives with her enormous family. Her education suffered from the years of helping her mother care for a succession of baby brothers. In 1966 Megan comes to a momentous decision, a decision she is helped in, surprisingly, by her emotionally absent father, the town bank manager. Megan decides to leave, and go to England. At home Megan’s elder brother Tom is studying aeronautical engineering, while her five younger brothers cause chaos around her. Megan is an organisational genius, under her exacting eye the house runs like clockwork, and the boys although frequently grubby and unruly behave as well as they are capable of.
The story is cleverly told from three viewpoints – moving backwards and forwards across the three year time period. In this way the story of a family, a community tragedy and its aftermath are gradually and sensitively revealed.
Megan arrives in London in the pouring rain, dragging a huge suitcase with her to the door of an old friend in Ladbroke Grove. Predictably perhaps, the friend is not there and Megan’s suitcase is stolen while she is introduced to the delights of a Chelsea bun in a local café.
“In terms of landscape the real thing was disappointing. She’d expected beauty – rolling hills, tranquil valleys – and instead, what little she could make out through the misted windows was flat and wet and a tedious shade of grey. She kept thinking it would get better around the next bend but there were no bends and it didn’t; in fact, as they approached London it got dramatically worse.”
The motley crew of inhabitants in the house where her friend formally lived invite Megan to stay, little knowing or caring themselves who is in the house at any one time. Desperate to find a reason to stay after her inauspicious start, Megan finds work in a department store, a job she tries hard to get on with but doesn’t much enjoy. Mrs Jamison in the personnel department takes a liking to Megan, and understanding that the store isn’t making Megan happy, puts her in touch with some friends who are starting up an exclusive little guest house. In helping to decorate and set up the Montrose, Megan is in her element, loving every minute of her new life, only occasionally feeling pangs of homesickness when letters arrive from home. Megan has friends, a flat of her own; she begins to feel that her life is settled with a great future ahead of her.
“His goal was to construct each day like the hull of a ship, every action a plank fitting exactly up to the next, no gaps or holes where thoughts might seep in, no changes to throw him off course, no surprises. Work, eat, read the paper, go to bed; stick to the routine and you’ll make it through the day.”
Back in Struan two tragedies occur that involve Tom’s best friend Robert. The events of a day in August 1967 are still being felt in the snow bound January and February of 1969, as Tom struggles to pick up the threads of his life. Driving a snow plough during the winter months, his studies abandoned; Tom’s life is one of easy routine, finishing work he goes to the town café each day orders the same food, and sits silently in a booth with his newspaper. His routine begins to unravel however when a new waitress starts working at his daily haunt, a girl seemingly obsessed with vegetables, Tom’s jealously guarded silence is threatened. Problems at home also begin to intrude into his consciousness. His mother is behaving a little oddly, his little brother smells and the home help is useless. Without the glue that is Megan holding the family together, this fragile family starts to unravel.
Tom’s father Edward, when he is at home is shut away from his struggling family, surfacing only long enough to roar at two of his more troublesome sons, in a voice that reminds him painfully of his own father. A thankfully inept arsonist is on the loose in Struan, evidence of which is found under Mr Cartwright’s office window. Edward’s bitter feud with Robert’s father rumbles on in the background, despite the hurt and tragedy that has scarred the last couple of years. Robert’s father; sitting barefoot on his snowy porch demonstrates poignantly the devastation that can come out of the blue.
In London meanwhile, some of the letters from home cause Megan some concern, not least the news that her mother is about to have yet another baby. Megan’s mother Emily always seems to pour all her attention into her latest baby, as Megan knows only too well having picked up the slack for years before she left. Certain that her little brother Adam was the last child her mother would have, Megan is dismayed that her mother has gone against medical advice and become pregnant again. In 1969, three years after leaving home, Megan is contacted by her elder brother – a conversation that infuriates Megan, and forces her to make a choice, a choice between her independence and the life she left behind.
This is my absolute favourite of the three excellent novels written by Mary Lawson, it’s very evocative, beautifully written, and I carried the characters with me for days after I had finished. In Road Ends there is depth and a multi-layered story rich in texture and emotion; it is a very fine novel about grief, dreams and family responsibility.