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In Lake People (Knopf, $24.95), Abi Maxwell also gives a nod to a certain counter-culture; Cici, from whom Maxwell’s protagonist, Alice, inherits a cabin on an island in a New Hampshire lake, is a former hippie who mysteriously appears in a small town “dressed in brighter clothing than anyone else from around here wore.” Maxwell’s landscape, though, is not modern culture but traditional folklore. We learn that the first of Alice’s ancestors in America was Eleanora: “She came alone from Sweden as a teenager, and by the time she arrived, she had faced some terrible trouble, and by the end of her life her trouble had not ended.” As in many Scandinavian novels, if a bad outcome is possible, it is inevitable. Eleanora’s daughter, Ida, is the first to drown, then her sons; then Eleanora goes “wild on that wild island.” Alice’s life begins with what looks like a curse — she is a foundling, left in a canoe floating beside a dock. Her father has been killed in a car accident; her mother has run away. Her father’s family, wealthy enough to take her in, refuses to do so. (Later, she will be abandoned for a third time by her adoptive mother.)

The natural world in Maxwell’s novel is perverse:

But now I have heard the call. . . . It does indeed sound like a loon, but the sound is, apart from all else, carried across the water and delivered to the listener in the softest of hands. As it travels, it splits the air open, so that only that call remains — stark and final and brilliant — and its listener can do nothing but float toward it.

And people offer no protection or solace. At sixteen, Alice is raped by an acquaintance of her father’s who later commits suicide. The only female friend she develops exploits her and threatens her by turns (the woman herself is regularly imprisoned and abused by her husband). Alice’s first boyfriend takes her away from the lake, to the hills. When he pushes her down the stairs it may be on purpose, and it may be because she is pregnant. Secrets are kept, secrets are told: no one ever fails to remind Alice that her background is suspect, her very existence a source of pain. In such an environment, she must find some method of embracing the world that will diminish its power. Her primary strategy is to employ a style of thought and discourse that turns experiences into myths and locales into symbols (Lake Country, Hill Country, The Village). When it comes to details of light and landscape, Alice is beautifully precise:

The ice was thick as an old maple, yet Ida had scarcely walked twenty steps upon it when the lake opened its mouth. First her feet dropped under, and then her hips came forward, in one slow, consenting wave. Her arms swept upward, and then, without sound, Ida dropped into the winter of the lake.

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