Marjorie Celona’s taut, melancholy sophomore novel opens on New Year’s Day in a frigid corner of Washington State. Officer Lewis Côté finds Vera Gusev’s car abandoned in a parking lot near a frozen lake, “doors splayed, engine on.” An hour earlier, Vera had called the station to report a boy who had been “separated from his father in the woods.” The call was cut short; now Vera has disappeared.
At home, Vera’s husband, Denny, is grief-stricken but also evasive: before Vera left that morning, the two had fought. The same day, divorced father Leo Lucchi takes his sons to the lake to send their wishes for the new year out on paper boats. Hours later, on their way back into town, Leo cryptically tells the boys “this day had never happened, this day had never been.” Leo promises his sons that when the ice melts, their wishes will come true. Instead, the spring thaw reveals what remains of Vera Gusev.
This could be the outline of a whodunit, and How a Woman Becomes a Lake does have both the artful structure and the tension of a crime novel. It follows Lewis as he tries to locate Vera and then, once her body is recovered, to find answers about her death. When he eventually pieces together what really happened that day, the facts are both grim and tragic.
But as Celona explores the effects of Vera’s fate on the characters, the literal mystery becomes a device by which to broach more abstract problems, particularly the difficulty of weighing loyalty to the living against duty to the dead. The search for justice leaves a trail of new harm in its wake. Denny, inevitably the prime suspect, becomes a victim in his turn: “They would investigate every aspect of his life and marriage, the detectives told him. They would turn him inside out.” Besieged, he is also bereft: “What he wanted to do was tell Vera about all of this. ‘Vera! Vera, you’ll never guess what happened!’ he wanted to say. ‘You disappeared!’”
Loneliness is something Celona’s characters have in common: Evelina, Leo’s ex-wife, just wants “someone, anyone, to take her in their arms”; Lewis himself is afraid to admit “that he was lonely here.” The novel’s wintry landscape (“The birch trees covered in snow. The empty parking lot, the snow falling in little clumps, all different sizes. The footprints … filled in until they were invisible”) conveys an isolation that is also spiritual, one that cannot be addressed by answers about Vera’s death.
The investigation into her disappearance and demise creates new connections, though, invoking – like Vera’s slow disintegration in the lake – a cycle of loss and recovery that leaves us with faint glimmerings of hope. “Did her death matter, in the grand scheme of things?” wonders Vera herself, narrating from beyond the grave. “Which actions matter, and which actions don’t?” That, rather than whodunit, is the question Celona’s haunting novel raises for us as well.