I smacked the flashlight head, wishing I’d bothered to change the batteries before I left home today. It flickered, but wouldn’t light. I struggled to my feet, knees quaking from the cold, until I stumbled out into the open, wheeling forwards and expecting to land flat on my face again. Instead, my hands met something square, ribbed, and wooden. My fingertips danced and touched and tried to read what I felt in the darkness, but sudden lightning served my need, instead. There they were: shelves, bindings… books.
I fumbled with the flashlight, smacking it so hard the pain sang in my hand. I was desperate. Like a spooked horse, it sprang into action, and my small halo of yellow light revealed the unbelievable truth. In front of me were books, mountains of them, of every size and shape I could imagine, caked in dust. The shelves went on for dark miles, and emboldened by how all of this had to be a dream, I wandered into the centre of the massive room I’d wriggled in to, finding myself face to face with the huge rose window—the window that, in a dream flash, had been a giant, winking eye. Rain pelted it from the other side, where the real world ended and this one began. I stepped reverently into the dim, rose-shaped light the window cast onto the floor, and I realized what this place was. After sixteen years of dreaming, after a decade of enduring Treade and its deprivation of my soul… I had fallen down the rabbit hole and landed in a library.
It’s a book lover’s dream come true: a library where every book opened, every spine cracked flat is a doorway to another world, another realm so very different from our own. Great works of fiction, the ones we remember most, that live with us, strike a balance between escapism on one hand and holding a mirror up to our world and our selves with the other. When the final page is turned and reality seeps back into the equation, the illusion is broken. To be able to literally step inside any book and have it be a world, full and tangible—to be able to fashion actual wings from the pages of stacks of books and travel to new heights—is a fantasy most die-hard readers likely have more often than they’d care to admit.
S.M. Beiko’s young adult novel The Lake and the Library teases this idea, but never fully embraces it. The novel centres on a young woman named Ashleigh—Ash. Ash and her mother have been stuck for a decade in a dull armpit of a town: Treade, Manitoba. Not so tiny you’d miss it on a map, but certainly smaller and less lively than Winnipeg, Treade feels a little like a fly-over prairie town where the grain elevators are as much an attraction as they are a sign of the town’s simple (and often boring) way of life.
Ash’s mother, a chain-smoker with unchecked medical problems and a penchant for wanderlust (or getting into trouble and having to up and move with little to no preamble), has informed her daughter that they will be moving by the summer’s end. This of course causes heartache for Ash and her two best friends of ten years, Paul and Tabitha. At first, Paul and Tabitha pull back, preemptively shielding themselves from the hurt that will come in only a couple of month’s time.
Ash is torn, because she herself is a dreamer. She reads and paints and fantasizes of a life away from Treade’s confined way of life, but at the same time she fears losing her two closest friends—and through losing them, letting go of her childhood. There’s a strong growing-up-is-hard-to-do vibe running through all their interactions—something any kid who school-hopped their way through life will likely find kinship with.
Determined to have one last adventure before leaving Treade, possibly forever, Ash decides to break into a decrepit, abandoned building the three of them discovered in the middle of Wilson’s Woods. This of course is the library from the book’s title. Once inside the library, and once her awe has run its course, Ash meets the mysterious and enigmatic Li—a young man, mute but more than capable communicating via gestures and sign language, who may or may not live in the library.
Ash and Li strike up a friendship that quickly crosses the line into love—or something supernatural meant to feel like love. As Li opens an infinite number of doors for Ash, taking her into the worlds of the books surrounding them in the library, Ash becomes overwhelmingly infatuated with Li. At first she’s fearful of their connection—fearful that because of how she feels about him she might want to stay in Treade, a town she knows, deep down, she doesn’t belong. But Li’s magic, his love for her, is strong, and Ash rapidly loses her grip on reality. She pushes her friends away first, diminishing their already limited time left together, then she starts ignoring and lashing out at her mother. She resents the lot of them for the little time they pull her away from Li, away from her perfect romance. Her actions are akin to a drug addict’s, and the influence of the fantasy on her mind and her way of thinking, her desperate desire to not grow up and admit to the changes happening in her life, causes her to hurt those who care for her most of all in both emotional and physical ways.
Interspersed with many of the chapters is a supplemental story—small chapters showing a son and his mother as he prepares, against his wishes, to take control of his deceased father’s business.
The Lake and the Library is a bit of a dichotomous experience: its core concept is engaging and the novel is difficult to put down, but it is also infuriating and at times painfully purple. Beiko’s character work is strong—Ash, Paul, and Tabitha are believable for their age, and their friendship feels genuine—and the mystery behind the library is fun. However the novel suffers from an overabundance of adjectives, which grinds the pacing of some of the more climactic scenes to a melodramatic limp (the most obvious example being during the novel’s first scene of conflict, in Chapter 4, where the action is knocked from active to passive because of the descriptive language employed). Throughout the novel, there’s simply too much literary hand holding and not enough confidence in the actions and events themselves to impart the tone of a given scene. This is as much a problem with the editing as it is the writing, but it is still something that I wish had been addressed in the production of this title, as it did, on several occasions, pull me out of what was otherwise an enjoyable read.
There are a few other cracks in the plaster—a variety of references from decades past that make it difficult to pin down the when of the book (something I clued into only once text messages made an appearance in the storyline) and the incredibly quick recovery of Ash’s mother in the novel’s later chapters, not to mention the lack of hurt exhibited by Paul and Tabitha when they finally confront Ash near the end—but none so damning that they further harmed the overall experience.
The Lake and the Library is a taste of Wonderland and Neverland without ever diving so deep into any one fictional world that we lose touch with reality. Beiko’s story has a soft undertone of tragedy, revealing two loves from two different worlds, both tasked with accepting the impending end of their childhood innocence and wanting to do whatever possible to put off the inevitable. The allure of the fantastic is strong, but the story is unfortunately hampered by overly colourful writing that could have used a bit more reigning in during the stylistic phase of the editing process.