Reviewed by Alisha Kaplan

 Eye Lake

 Tristan Hughes

 Coach House Books, 2011

 208 pages, $19.95



Where the Lost Things Are:
A Review of Tristan Hughes’ Eye Lake

Eye Lake is Tristan Hughes’ heartbreaking portrait of Crooked River, a declining iron ore town in Northern Ontario, and of a deceptively simple young man weighed down by memory and loss.

The main character, narrator Eli O’Callaghan, has lived in Crooked River his entire life. The book opens with Eli discovering the tip of his grandfather Clarence’s underwater castle while fishing. Clarence was Crooked River’s founder, a character based on Hughes’ great-uncle, Tom Rawn (the first settler of Atikokan, Ontario). Clarence built the log cabin “castle” for a woman he hoped to marry but who never returned to Crooked River. Each colourful individual in Eye Lake has a story that has become something close to mythology. And Eli, the only one left in his family and a stable citizen of Crooked River’s dwindling population, carries the burden of these tragic stories, thinking of their subjects often: of Clarence who walked into the river and never emerged; optimistic Uncle Virgil; his unknown mother; his depressed father who took his own life; and, perhaps most often, his best friend George McKenzie who mysteriously vanished one day when they were boys. After all these years, Eli still carries the heavy secret of George’s disappearance with a loyalty that is suffocating.

Eye Lake is a book composed of memories. The discovery of Clarence’s castle, the town’s centennial celebration, a young boy who goes missing—everything that happens in the present recalls the past. Even small details do so: the phantom shad Eli uses as fishing bait that reminds him of George with its red eyes and white skin, or a glass of milk he pours that makes him think of how Virgil used to call beer “nectar of the gods.” Similar to the turret poking out of the water, memories puncture Eli’s thoughts and haunt him like a restless ghost searching for something left in a house that was once its home. Eli called his friend Curious George because he was always exploring, looking for relics and mementos. Now that everyone beloved to him is gone, Eli looks inside his memories for solace. He understands that:

If I didn’t look back, just a bit, just now and again, then I wouldn’t be able to see Virgil, or Dad, or Nana, or Curious George, or any of them. And sometimes I’ve got no choice but to look that way, just the same as Lot’s wife and those country singers. I can’t help it—even if sometimes it leaves a sad, scary taste in my mouth. Backwards is where the lost things are. And where else are you going to find them?

It is as though they still exist because they come to mind so often. These ghosts keep him company. Yet Eli, steadfast, always thinking of others, has his own pain—he realizes: “Having something to tell about and nobody to tell it to suddenly seemed a terrible thing.”

Eli is quite alone in Crooked River. Many people acknowledge him more as a town fixture than an equal. This is in large part due to, as he describes it, the cord that was wrapped around his neck when he was born. Other less sensitive characters say outright what Hughes expertly leaves ambiguous: that he has some sort of mental disability. At the outset, Eli seems to be a child. Only after a few pages does Hughes let on that his narrator may be a grown man, or at least a young adult. Eli never refers to himself as mentally disabled, though he is well aware that others do. That Eli knows “most people in Crooked River thought [he] didn’t understand much of anything except for fishing” proves the opposite: he understands quite acutely, more than he lets on. Hughes slowly reveals his narrator’s peculiar intelligence, which is pure with a childlike clarity of vision. Though simple at first glance, Eli’s interior world turns out to be rich and complex. There is something about the way he thinks and speaks, a vulnerability and naiveté coupled with a keen, insightful eye that makes his a compelling mind to inhabit. Though the out-of-place southern vernacular Hughes employs can be distracting, the effort of getting beyond it and getting to know Eli is worthwhile.

Eli is the ideal person to guide us through the town and its history, perhaps because he observes Crooked River as somewhat of an outsider, despite the fact that he has lived there his whole life. With his unique point of view, Eli can traverse this small but intricate setting that seems to exist out of time—though Hughes firmly paints a sense of place with his descriptions of the wild forests and vast lakes of Northern Ontario. (He lived in Atikokan until he was five, spent his summers there while growing up, and now divides his time between Northern Ontario and Wales.)

Throughout Eye Lake, Hughes’ writing is beautifully understated. His narrator’s voice is sincere and compelling. Things come together and fall apart in a process as natural as ebb and tide, as the building and decline of Crooked River itself. The author makes tangible the fraught and almost surreal world of a dying town with its cast of quirky characters, each possessing individual tragedies; the past that juts into the present; and Eli’s dialogue with those buried secrets, with his ghosts. Like Uncle Virgil who never stopped looking for Clarence every time they went fishing in the river, Eli cannot help but look back at what was lost—for some sign, some salve. While learning how difficult it is for Eli to let go of the past, I find it difficult to let him go. I want to protect Eli, this lonely, childlike man with a heart of gold and a head heavy with history.


Note: This is a corrected version of the Eye Lake review first published on this site June 13.

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