McClelland & Stewart, 2018
“The dark cup of the cat’s ear moved, the long guard hairs at the tip shivering toward the crack in the window beside her. Art finished his drink, put his glass down by the whiskey bottle, and waited to see if the cat’s ear would come back to rest, but it didn’t. Instead, she lifted her head and looked out the window, both ears pointed at whatever was outside.”
So, begins Deep River Night, a novel by Patrick Lane that follows the residents of an isolated sawmill town in the interior of B.C. It opens with Art Kenning, a first aid attendant, being awoken from a drunken stupor to treat a wounded boy brought to his cabin by one of the mill workers. Lane worked in labour communities in northern BC as a first aid attendant so it is not surprising Art’s character feels particularly lived in, as if Lane is giving an account of his own experiences. Art wrestles with his personal demons while aiding the community members who struggle with the daily routines and personal demons of their lives.
The other storyline in the novel belongs to Joel, a young man who ran away from home east of the Rocky Mountains and ended up in town. Throughout the book, he struggles with his attraction to both a First Nations woman named Alice and his girlfriend Myrna Turfoot.
The characters carry with them the traumas of their past experiences. Art witnessed the atrocities of the WWII from the frontlines. The sawmill’s cook, Wang Po, escaped the massacres in Nanjing, China during the Japanese invasions. Lane masterfully showcases each character’s needs and desires through their interactions. Given the size of the mill town, the characters are in frequent contact and comment on each other to offer a more layered perspective
There is also a pronounced theme of naturalism over industrialism as the those who experience a closeness to nature like the character of Myrna and her family are depicted as being wiser and more fulfilled than those working in the town. There are many instances throughout were characters try to find meaning in the natural world with various interactions with the animal and plant life around them.
Patrick Lane is a well-established Canadian writer known for multiple collections of poetry and the novel Red Dog, Red Dog, which was longlisted for multiple awards including the Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
When reading Deep River Night, it’s clear that Lane’s abilities as a poet aid his prose. His arresting similes and metaphors are at once vivid and ethereal: “The opium he had used back in the cabin had begun its first quiet leaving, soft tendrils slipping away along the blood vessels in his arms and legs, thin velvet ropes undoing in him, letting him go.”
Overall, Deep River Night is a darkly vivid journey into the mill town’s characters as they struggle with addiction, loss, and the desire to forge their place.