Thoughtful and elegant debut novel makes Johanna Lane one to watch

Dulough, the Black Lake property, from which this novel takes its name, is a fictional rundown estate on the exposed northwest coast of Ireland that has been in the Campbell family for generations and is currently owned by John Campbell who lives in the house with his Dublin-born wife Marianne and their two children, Kate and Philip.

John’s family acquired Dulough when it was bought by his grandfather, Philip the first who developed the house with a certain austerity borne of his Presbyterian upbringing. Philip’s austere castle contrasts with the simple, evocative hut built by his great grandson and namesake on a remote island off the estate where the family’s graves are located.

If John and his family are the central characters in this novel, the castle and Philip’s hut are silent characters binding generations and relationships and perhaps outlasting all.

On Dulough’s third floor is a locked ballroom, supposedly left unfinished by the first Philip, but actually almost complete, its end wall beautifully decorated with a trompe l’oeil painting by the artist Geoffrey Rowe. The painting uses realistic imagery to create an illusion of the entire estate where everything looks as if it could move at any moment. When Kate touches the lake in this painting, her hand comes away blue as if the water were real and yet it is not the painting but rather the trompe l’oeil perspectives of the main characters that intrigue the reader in this short novel.

With the estate in financial trouble John has decided to enter a pact with the Irish government, opening the house to the public and moving himself and his family to a cottage on the estate. His decision and the subsequent loss of the house affect the family deeply — particularly Marianne and Philip — and when a tragic accident occurs its impact merges with the loss of to place additional strain on family relationships.

Black Lake begins slowly but as the story unfolds through the voices of John, Marianne and Philip the reader is increasingly drawn in. Philip is perhaps the most fully realised character and depicted to give a bittersweet insight into childhood.

Lane writes beautifully and tells a moving story and multi-layered story. This is her debut novel — perhaps not perfect, but thoughtful and elegant — and marks her as a name to watch for in future.

Black Lake by Johanna Lane is published by Little Brown & Co, a division of the Hachette Book Group. A free ARC was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.