Book review: Distorted identity deepens the mystery of ‘Mirror Lake’

The opening of “Mirror Lake,” pulls the reader into a haunted realm of remote Maine woods with a lake as its gravitational center. It is as if the lake holds the surrounding mountains in place.

“In certain silent moments, their motionless mass makes the blackness of the water cleaving beneath the hull almost frightening, shot through with iridescence that comes not from colors of the sky but from the deepest depths of chasms into which the victims of Mirror Lake have fallen , ”Author Andrée A. Michaud writes, as translated by JC Sutcliffe for the 2006 thriller’s first English edition, published last year.

Into this world comes Robert Moreau, recently retired, seeking privacy and seclusion, needing “to go where no one could follow me.” Moreau observes that gazing into the lake’s “treacherous waters forces you to look yourself straight in the eyes and ask who you are and who you could have been, even as the image blurs and you conclude there is no answer to these questions.”

Maine, he comes to believe, is “a land filled with secrets.”

In addition to secrets, “Mirror Lake” is filled with strange, confounding riddles and distortions, and unfathomable hallucinatory episodes that eventually cause Moreau to question not only who he is, but whether he is sane.

The lake’s promise of idyllic solitude is shattered almost from the start when Moreau realizes that he is not the only denizen – living or dead – held in the lake’s grip. Bob Wilson, a pudgy, gregarious fellow who is staying on the far shore, rows across the lake to introduce himself.

“‘Hi. I’m your new neighbor. ‘ As if I did not know. As if I had not lived long enough to recognize the multiple faces calamity can wear. ”

Wilson greets Jeff, Moreau’s golden-coated dog, glad he’s friendly. Moreau quickly succeeds in brushing off Bob, who departs, hollering, “See you soon, Raccoon.” Wilson is good at his word, appearing the next day with a new puppy. “Bill, the puppy, would be identical to Jeff the dog in every way,” Moreau thinks. Annoyed, he speculates whether Wilson might want “us to shop for matching underwear together.”

It is obvious by this point that absurdities prowl the grounds around Mirror Lake. Against Moreau’s better instincts, he and Wilson become drinking buddies.

Things take a dramatic turn when Moreau, returning to the lake after seeking out the comfort of a prostitute in town, is greeted by Wilson, who rows frantically across the lake towing Moreau’s capsized boat. Wilson had been in a panic, believing he’d seen his neighbor fall out of the boat in the middle of the lake and disappear into the depths.

The unknown victim, at first referred to as John Doe, later as John Doolittle, becomes a major character in the story. As does the prostitute, who Moreau thinks looks like the Swedish actress Anita Ekberg; he starts referring to her as Anita. Another major character enters the story, the local sheriff with Ray-Bans that never come off, who “could easily be mistaken for Tim Robbins in the movie Short Cuts.” Robbins, as he becomes known, believes there has been a murder at the lake. The sheriff, the reader eventually learns, is Anita’s boyfriend.

These developments tip the story to slide into hallucinatory distortions of who’s who. Moreau eventually becomes lost in his reflection in his cabin’s mirror, causing him to believe he’s become Bob Wilson.

Struggling to glean some sense of it all, borrowing from the novel’s title, I go with the surmise that, perhaps, it all depends on which side of the mirror one stands. (I’m not confident this is actually what the author intends – which mirrors my lack of confidence about what exactly is going on. But this is a fool’s errand, as no “exactly” can be found in the book.)

I felt lost and confused much of the time, which is how Robert Moreau came to feel – and which may be Michaud’s point. Whatever her intention, I can not get the book out of my mind.

“Mirror Lake” won the Le Prix Ringuet, a literary award for Quebec authors, when it was originally published in French, one of many awards bestowed on Michaud for her writings.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize and was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by Shelf Unbound. Smith can be reached via his website:

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