Dread hangs like a shroud over Patrick Lane’s Deep River Night. The acclaimed Canadian poet’s second novel is set in and around a sprawling lumber facility in B.C. circa 1960. It’s a space where violence occurs like clockwork: men get caught in the gears of their machines, workers quite literally becoming grist for the mill. “The whistles almost never went to five … if the count went to five it meant that someone had been injured so badly he couldn’t walk off the mill floor.” Reading these words, we tense up and await the impending five-alarm horror show, in the knowledge there will be blood.
Deep River Night doesn’t shy away from brutality, but it’s nevertheless a delicate piece of fiction, organized around states of psychological as well as physical fragility. Working in an intimate yet omniscient mode that grants us access to the interior lives of his characters without ever completely prizing any one person’s point of view, Lane gives us a trio of protagonists whose damage predates their arrival at the camp. Art is a veteran of the Second World War who works as the mill’s first-aid man; Joel is a young transient plucked half-dead off a freezing boxcar and rewarded with a gruelling, backbreaking job; and Wang Po is a Chinese-born cook who suffers with stoic good humour the lazy racism of the men he feeds. As the book proceeds, we learn what each of these men is running from; in all three cases, their pasts follow them to their adopted home with a vengeance.
There isn’t much that happens in the narrative present in Deep River Night. Suffice it to say that after some extended, even leisurely scene-setting – detailed in a way that suggests Lane is conjuring memories of his own youth working in similar sawmills – there is a tense, terrifying incident involving one of the camp’s residents that brings Art, Joel, and Wang Po (already friends and confidants) into a new and fateful triangulation.
The development and resolution of the plot is intelligent and well engineered, but the bulk of the book is dedicated to reminiscing: the characters’ isolation at the camp is heightened by the extent to which they are each trapped by memories of the past. The most painfully constrained is Art, whose recollections of wartime service and his sojourn in Europe in the years following are presented in fleeting shards, with any possibly coherent feelings – guilt, shame, or gratefulness at having survived – shattered by trauma. The relationship between Art and Wang Po, whose closet is stuffed with its own share of wartime skeletons (he escaped the Rape of Nanjing) is beautifully conceived: swapping stories and sharing opium in a tiny cabin, each is uniquely equipped to hear the other out even as they tell the same stories over and over again – commiseration as a form of enabling.
The material involving Joel is somewhat less interesting and somehow more familiar. His inner life is dominated by his attraction to two different women, one a farmer’s daughter who gives herself willingly, the other an Indigenous girl from a nearby residential school who keeps herself at an understandable remove from the camp’s workers. Whereas Art and Wang Po are consumed by past actions, Joel’s romantic and sexual confusion points to the hope for some kind of future. For a while, it seems that Joel’s fixation on the second woman, Alice, is a pretext for Lane to indulge in a form of white-knight fantasizing alongside his protagonist; we see her through Joel’s half-desirous, half-pitying eyes and wonder if she’s a character or merely a device. But Lane is a resourceful writer and keeps subdividing the point of view so that the ostensible object of desire is finally granted her own space in the narrative.
Throughout Deep River Night, Lane’s powers of description are uncanny (“two small aspen saplings gave him cover as lamplight flowed like burnt water over his head”). It’s the author’s command of language – the subordination of plot to poetry, in a way that doesn’t slow the one or hyperbolize the other – that holds the massive enterprise together. The book’s grimness can give a reader quite a working over, and yet it never feels obvious or exploitative; even the most hallucinatory, gory moments are rooted in a social and historical context that grants them gravitas. This is a heavy novel to be sure, but in its best moments – including a final scene so perfectly executed it feels like a magic trick – it provides a weightless, ecstatic sense of lift.