I set a goal last year to read all the 2021 longlisted Booker Prize books. The delay in US publishing meant my goal spilled over into 2022, but I’m still chipping away. After Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace (Knopf Canada 2021), only one remains from the list, and I’m curious to see if I end on a better note than I started. (I hated Second Place.) Had I saved A Town Called Solace for last, the reading experience would indeed have been book-ended with two books I did not enjoy. I cannot fathom how A Town Called Solace made the list, unless it was nostalgia for a work that was nominated but did not win in years past. I can tell from reviews this is an unpopular opinion, but this was not an enjoyable book; it has an identity crisis.
The novel takes a wholesome and sweet small town, ripe for a cozy mystery, and implants unlikeable and sinister characters. While blurring the lines between the two is an interesting concept, it reads as disjointed and not intentional in this work.
Stop now if you don’t want spoilers.
The novel alternates between Cara, Elizabeth, and Liam. Elizabeth’s POV could have been entirely removed from the novel. Her sections are jarring and out of the timeline. (She’s already dead in Liam’s and Cara’s sections.) More disturbing is that she’s a caricature of a child-stealing infertile woman grown old. She’s unreliable and unlikeable. Her role in the plot could have readily been reduced to Liam being left the house and remembering her and wondering what had happened. A well-placed article. An angry conversation with his mom. There were lots of ways to get there.
Liam himself is an unpleasant character. He didn’t initially seem that way, but there is an unexpected shift in his sections. There is also a significant amount of fatphobic and sexist language in his sections, and his redemption arc is more of a squiggle.
Cara is the most likeable character, and she’s an eight-year-old whose older sister has run away and whose parents aren’t telling her anything – including when Elizabeth dies. Cara has been feeding the cat, Moses, and her parents say nothing. Not even when Liam moves into the home, and Cara begins sneaking around to ensure Moses gets taken care of. They don’t even tell their new neighbor that their daughter has been feeding the cat or that there even is a cat.
What happens to Cara’s sister, Rose, is horrific, but the sex trafficking is reduced to a couple of sentences, and her return is overshadowed by Liam’s decision to stay.
The more I think about this book, the more I dislike it.