It’s summer in Sitting Down Lake, a community of four cabins in northern Ontario, and Zachary Tayler, the 15-year-old narrator of Tristan Hughes’s fifth novel, struggles with loss and loneliness. “I don’t recall ever thinking of Sitting Down Lake as a lonely place,” Zack informs us, “although perhaps solitude has shaped my memories and perceptions more than I have realized and others might well have thought it so.” This thoughtful attitude separates him from his father, who has buried himself in grief since the death of his wife six years earlier. And then 17-year-old Eva Spiller arrives in town.
Eva is a foul-mouthed, cigarette-packing wild child, but like Zack she is also suffering loss. Her parents died in a floatplane crash not long after the death of Zack’s mother, and Eva has been bounced from place to place by Children’s Aid. Her uncle Lamar, a resident of Sitting Down Lake, is a last resort. Rounding out the cast is Oskar the Finn, an old man who traps leeches for bait and has hired Zack to help him on weekends, and Mrs. Schneider, whose husband has been dead, as Zack says, “for nearly twenty-five years, long enough to have become nearly flawless.”
Zack and Eva are smart and sensitive young people whom life has dealt harsh hands. When Eva reveals that she wants to find the crash site where her parents died, Zack does his best to help. It’s evident that Eva, who refused to take the plane trip with her parents, has enormous survivor’s guilt. For his part, Zack wants desperately to make sense of his mother’s death.
The brilliance of Hughes’s novel lies in its refusal to explain what is ultimately inexplicable. Overall, the tone is meditative and muted. The novel recognizes that everyone suffers, and that some methods of dealing with grief may be better than others. If there’s any resolution, it’s in the suggestion that time can serve as a balm. Hughes’s raw emotion is set perfectly against the rugged landscape of the north – the lakes, trees, rocks, and bugs. There’s danger there, but there’s also beauty.