When Evelyn returns home late at night and finds her roommate’s two young girls in a dangerous situation, she finally breaks. She hastily gathers their things and buckles the little girls into the backseat of her ’92 Corolla before racing out of California in the dark. The destination is Evelyn’s hometown of Cormorant Lake—nearly two thousand miles away, but unfortunately not far enough to escape her demons. It’s here that she reunites with her own de facto mother, Nan, who takes to the kidnapped girls like a person lost in the desert would take to water.
Cormorant Lake is a saga of de facto mothers, of women whose suitability for motherhood is measured exclusively by eagerness for the job. They scoop up these neglected, malnourished kids, take them in as their own, feed them, care for them as best they can. Evelyn is as eager as they come, helplessly in love with the girls she’s spirited away but so conflicted about what she’s done that she experiences brief fits of paranoid horror that seem almost paranormal. Fear of being alone with her thoughts pushes her along, and she barrels toward burnout immediately—two menial jobs, occasional catnaps between, half-eaten meals, long drives on cold, dark roads. On the rare occasion she does sleep, you’d think she’d imbibed the same mysterious liquor as Rip Van Winkle, falling into a slumber deeper than the titular lake. Before long, she views rest as something of a vice—as if she should be working to cure herself of the need.
Meanwhile, Nan is haunted by her own demons, and it’s startling how often her past mirrors Evelyn’s present. She, too, has separated mother from child. She wrestles with the decisions she’s made and yearns for absolution that will never come. Author Faith Merino is careful not to linger too long on the characters’ perceived iniquities, describing them with tactful prose that is empathetic and never pitying. Even Jamie, an ambitionless, cuckolding swim instructor with a pregnancy fetish—a character who would probably seem ridiculous in any other book—somehow manages to hang onto some dignity because of how Merino presents him. He and the other characters’ idiosyncrasies take on an almost fable-like quality.
Flashbacks and off-the-cuff comments along the way eventually reveal that both Nan’s and Evelyn’s guilt is rooted in much more than simply swooping in and caring for neglected children. The book’s conclusion came as something of a surprise to me. It’s abrupt but deliberate, perhaps illustrating the unfulfilled need for closure the main characters will deal with for the rest of their lives. Faith Merino’s debut novel is engrossing, haunting, and beautifully written. Fans of any genre will find something to enjoy here.
|Page Count||208 pages|
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