“Everyone has always met everyone else in Crooked River. I forget that sometimes.” When Eli O’Callaghan speaks these words in Tristan Hughes’s fourth novel, we understand them to be both a typical sentiment about small towns in general and an ironic one about this town in particular. Because while it’s true that everybody knows everybody else’s business in Crooked Lake, a fictitious town somewhere in Northern Ontario, it’s also true that it’s a place loaded with secrets – secrets that are literally and metaphorically revealed as the story progresses.
At the centre of this tale is Eli, developmentally challenged as a result of being born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his throat. Over the course of the narrative, he finds himself embroiled in several interconnected mysteries, including the disappearance of his childhood friend, George; the death of his eccentric grandfather, Clarence, founder of the community; and the fate of a castle Clarence built that ended up submerged beneath Eye Lake on the outskirts of town.
Hughes displays a pitch-perfect ear for the language, cadence, and foibles of life in an isolated rural community. He gives us pickup trucks and fishing holes, petty feuds that go back years, and a deep sense that nothing and everything important happens in the town. Eli, despite his mental deficiencies and tendency to speak in double negatives, is a warm and endearing narrator. Through him, we see both the violent and tender sides of this community.
Hughes has done an exquisite job plotting Eye Lake, but this is only a small part of the novel’s pleasures. What impresses most is the way Hughes carefully incorporates his metaphors – the past as something submerged; the lake with a name that evokes watchfulness – without clubbing us over the head. In lesser hands, these things would appear obvious. But Hughes gets the balance right, producing a deeply satisfying read worth savouring.