Lawson's compelling third novel (The Other Side of the Bridge, 2006, etc.) is about trying to get away—from the past, from tragedy, from grief, and from the inescapable obligations, for better or worse, of family.
The Cartwrights live in Struan, a rural Canadian town with harsh weather. In 1967, 21-year-old Megan is finally leaving home. The second eldest child and only daughter, she's spent most of her life running the household and raising her five younger brothers while her mother focused on having babies. She moves to London, intent on living her own life, and in her absence, the Cartwrights begin to unravel. The father, Edward, avoids his family as much as possible, worried that his growing temper and violent thoughts mirror his own father’s abusive behavior. Tom, the oldest son, is rocked by a tragedy that leads to his best friend’s suicide and moves back home. He isolates himself from the outside world as much as possible and fixates on death. As Megan slowly finds her footing in London, the Cartwright home descends into filth and inattention. Finally, Tom discovers that his 4-year-old brother, Adam, has been grossly neglected and changes must be made. The conflicts the Cartwrights face seem unavoidable, as if they cannot—or, more appropriately, will not—help themselves. Even halfway around the world, Megan can’t completely escape her family's many needs; but returning would mean giving up a life of her own, and, as a friend tells her, “The graveyards are full of indispensable people, Meg.”
Although the novel moves slowly, the characters are riveting and demand sympathy even at their most pathetic. We are left with the sense that to live is to struggle, in cities or in the harsh, Canadian north, and there is nothing to do but the best we can.