Book Review of Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace is set in Northern Ontario in 1972. It is beautifully accessible, eternally hopeful and poignantly sad.
A Town Called Solace explores the relationship between Clara, (the sister of Rose, a rebellious teenager who has run away from home), with Mrs Orchard her next door neighbour, who also inexplicably disappears, and later Liam, the mysterious man who then appears in Mrs Orchard’s house. Told from alternate narratives we learn everyone’s story and the relationships between them.
The main story in A Town Called Solace, is a historical one. I’ts a tale that Clara never actually learns about. Had she known I wonder how she or her parents might have felt about her friendship with Mrs. Orchard. Elizabeth Orchard, a Primary teacher who was unable to have children, befriends Liam, the small boy from next door. Events unfold and Liam is removed from Mrs Orchard’s life. Years later Elizabeth, having moved to a town called Solace, leaves her house, in her will, to Liam, now a grown man, If I were teaching the book in school I’d be looking at the unreliability of narrative voice as I’m not sure I believed everything Elizabeth said!
Liam, now an accountant, in the aftermath of a failed marriage, arrives at Solace determined to stay only long enough to sort out Mrs Orchard’s estate. Events unfold in a way that the reader realizes early on that Liam’s visit will be a lengthy one. After all Mrs Orchard has a cat that someone must look after!
The individual stories that emerge are tragic and heartbreaking, yet any sense of despair felt by the reader is fleeting. Somehow, Mary Lawson manages to instil hope in the most awful of situations. Perhaps it is the feisty innocence, but determination of young Clara, who links each of the stories, that allows for optimism to emerge.
The book has both a small town, parochial feel alongside a sense of it being universally important. The deceptively simple writing style embodies this. It’s straightforward nature belies its utter brilliance. It feels strong and immersive. The reader is left enchanted, yet wondering why this is the case. There are definite weaknesses in the plot – the inclusion of child safety issues pertaining to Clara seem like an editor’s after thought. Not particularly being a cat lover myself the ending struck me as cheesy, yet it didn’t matter.
Despite criticisms that can be made A Town Called Solace resonates to the very heart of the reader. It has the same kind of feel good message as The Midnight Library, but the plot is probably a bit darker in places. Perhaps it is because ultimately we are all concerned with the small corners of life that make up existence. Trivial to others, but important to us.
It is both pleasing and surprising that Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace has been longlisted for the Booker Prize. I wonder if it could win?
Book Discussion Questions on Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
- How much empathy did you have for Elizabeth and how much of what she said did you believe?
- What do we learn about attitudes to the elderly from the conversations that Elizabeth and Martha have?
- What chance does the relationship between Liam and the librarian have of being a successful one? Discuss.
- Was Liam right to adivse Karl’s son to go back to university? Discuss.
- Very little is said about what happened to Rose when she is brought back home? Do you think this is a weakness of the novel? Discuss.
- Do you think the technique of using different narrative voices to tell the story is successful. Why or why not?
- What is the signficance of the cat in the novel?
- Would you enjoy living somewhere like Solace? Perhaps you do? Why is somewhere like Solace a good or ‘not so good’ place to live?
- Why do you think A Town Called Solace made its way onto the Booker shortlist?
- Which character in the story do you have the most empathy for and why? Discuss.
- Was Elizabeth wrong to allow Clara in her house, without having discussed her previous mental health issues with Clara’s parents?
- To what extent do you think Liam’s adult personality fits with the childhood that he experienced, assuming that we believe to some extent at least Elizabeth’s and his own portrayal of what occured?
Bookclub Questions on A Town Called Solace (if you haven't read the book!)
- A Town Called Solace is acclaimed by Graham Norton on the back cover. To what extent do you take notice of reviews when choosing novels?
- Would you allow your child to spend time with a neighbour if you knew they’d had mental health issues?
- Where would you go if you were looking for solace? Do you have a special place?
- How important is it for you to have all loose ends tied up in a novel?
- A Town Called Solace is set in 1972, so almost fifty years ago. Is that long enough ago for it to be considered a historical novel?
Personal Response to Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
The fascinating thing about The Booker Prize is how diverse the selected longlist and then the short list of books are. I would not have expected this to be on it, yet why not? It is a powerful and sophisticated exploration of the frailty of people. It deserves it’s place.
The more I read, particularly in recent years, the more obvious it seems to me that the fundamental purpose of all fiction is just to help us understand ourselves and the people we love. Mary Lawson achieves this in A Town Called Solace. It is probably a good job that I’ve been out of the teaching profession for several years now. If that’s all I’d had to say when teaching IB English my lessons would have been very short.