Like Mary Lawson’s other books, Crow Lake and her Man Booker nominee The Other Side of the Bridge, the action in Road Ends is in the cold remote area of North Canada, where winters are long and hard, a setting conducive to unforgiving introspection. The narrative of Road Ends is compelling, and you are sad for almost everyone.
The story revolves around Megan, the only girl in a family of seven brothers. As the second oldest and only girl, Megan has been running the household almost since she could walk; now at twenty-one, she is ready to leave to start her own life in London.
Although Lawson creates a supporting cast, the strong narrative develops from Megan, her father Edward, and oldest son, Tom, with their thoughts and perspectives in alternating chapters. Megan’s mother, Emily, literally wanders in and out of the story, always with a baby on her shoulder, as she drifts into dementia and tries to find her own comfort in the steady stream of newborns.
Edward, lost in his shattered dreams, hides from the family chaos by retreating to his study to read about exotic places he has never been. While two of his sons are toying with arson and his four year old, Adam, is wetting the bed, Edward is purposely oblivious. His avoidance supposedly stems from his abusive father, his childhood in poverty, a fatal fire, and the war, but it’s hard not to want to shake him into accepting responsibility for his family – beyond being the breadwinner.
Tom, who graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering, is frozen in grief and guilt when his best friend commits suicide. He foregoes promising job offers and returns home to run the town’s snowplow through the incessant and constant snowstorms. Slowly, he emerges from his fog – prompted by the needs of his four year old brother, a neglected little boy, who wanders around his house unbathed and hungry, because his mother’s attention is fixated on yet another infant, her ninth.
Megan is the catalyst for the family’s decline. Without her, everything falls apart, but it seems to take awhile before anyone notices, despite the dirty house, the empty refrigerator, and the piles of dirty clothes. After landing in London, she stumbles on a job in a department store but finds it boring. Eventually, she connects with a couple who are opening a new hotel and are looking for someone to help with the renovation and management of the housekeeping. Ironically, Megan is happier working at the hotel, doing a job strangely similar to the one she had at home with her family.
The ending is somewhat disappointing if you are a romantic and expect Megan to find true love and an exciting career in a new life across the sea. Her choices are predicable and realistic; there is some escape from the bonds of family in this story for the boys, but sadly not for Megan. Nevertheless, Lawson manages to project a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment for her main character.
I found phrases I noted down to remember, as I did with her other novels, but laughed out loud in recognition when I read Tom’s commentary:
“There’s a law of nature…that says you should never, ever allow yourself to think for a single minute that things are finally getting better because Fate just won’t be able to resist cutting you off at the knees.”