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Sugarmilk Falls

by Ilona van Mil

Ilona van Mil’s debut crime novel is being touted by her publisher as the new Crow Lake or Snow Falling on Cedars, but it isn’t quite that kind or calibre of novel. A complex mystery that has already won the British Crime Writers’ Debut Dagger Award, it vividly evokes the landscape of northern Canada and takes on ambitious themes of racism and the enduring fallout of war. With its spoiled priest, displaced persons, and flashbacks to Paris and the Second World War, the book is oddly reminiscent of the novels of Morley Callaghan.

The novel opens as a mysterious stranger appears in Sugarmilk Falls, a small northern community with secrets to hide. The townspeople gather to pool their knowledge about decades-old events and tragedies – all linked to the maple woods that provide the town with its name and livelihood. But some of those present have reasons to dissemble, and their stories are tainted by hypocrisy and misinformation.

The key players aren’t even there. The schoolteacher, Martina Grochowska, is dead, murdered. So is old Grand’mere Osweken, along with her family. The trapper who loved Grochowska has vanished. The town cop only wants to retire to Florida, and the priest has graver reasons for not wishing to raise old ghosts.

Van Mil grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and now teaches law in the U.K. One of her novel’s strengths is its focus on the white community’s tragic failure to take seriously the rights – legal and moral – of the local Ojibwa family. Some events fail to ring true – the schoolteacher’s role in putting an Indian child into foster care, for example, considering her own memories of being taken from her family in childhood. The many characters and shifting viewpoints can be hard to keep track of, and occasional passages are floridly overwritten. Overall, though, van Mil brings both familiarity and perspective to her Canadian material, if maybe just a little too much maple syrup.