Jawbone Lake is set in Derbyshire, the home of the English Peak District, a place of rugged scenery, small towns and villages and a feeling of remoteness from the large cities which surround it. You could summarise it by saying that it’s about a young man discovering that his deceased father was not what everyone had thought him to be. But along the way we have a fine thriller, a psychological study of a young woman who is reluctantly involved in the plot and brilliant word pictures of life at the blunt end of “poverty Britain”.
Joe Arms is called back from his wealthy life in London by his mother when his father’s Land Rover crashes into the ice of a frozen lake. His father (“CJ”) is missing, presumed dead, but the police are bewildered as to the circumstances of the accident. Was another car involved? Did anyone see the accident?
The story moves to Rabbit, a young woman who works in an ice-cream factory and who was standing by the side of the lake when the accident happened. Rabbit has enough on her plate following the cot-death of her baby son and she runs from the scene, having seen another car at the scene and a man with a “dark shape silhouetted in his hand”.
The story moves between Joe and Rabbit throughout the book. Joe as searches for the truth about his father during visits to Spain and Hastings on the Sussex coast (where CJ began his career). Rabbit on the other hand goes to work as normal, but soon realises that someone is looking for her with a view to making sure that there is no chance that she will tell the police of what she saw on the fateful night.
Rabbit is a fascinating character and we learn about her yearning for her lost baby, her monotonous life in the factory and her life with her Auntie Cass and friends Kate and Frankie. The book is as much about Rabbit as it is about Joe, but the two stories are skilfully inter-twined making for a varied read.
Some novels have a tendency to be “over-written” with long descriptions of people and places which could be easily inferred by the context and the inclusion of events which don’t contribute anything to the story. A general “wordiness” which becomes annoying and slows up the reading experience. The opposite problem is a tendency to write too sparsely, to leave the reader puzzled and trying to work out what is going on. In Jawbone Lake we have an excellent example of how to avoid both those problems. As I read the book I found myself quickly drawn into the plot, with brief word-pictures building up just the right amount of framework in my mind. An elegant and fast-moving narrative drove me on through the pages and yet somehow leaving me feeling that “this is good writing”.
I enjoyed the scenes of local colour. The cable cars of the Heights of Abraham are mentioned for example, causing me to look them up and find out more. The scenes set in Hastings describe a typically run-down English seaside resort (I might take issue with the author here – I was there last month and thought it looked quite prosperous, especially around the new Jerwood Gallery). Nevertheless it seriously did nothing for the author:
Hastings resembled some woebegone postcard. Its image a mile-long promenade of mainly boarded up shop-fronts . . . The beach was nothing but a bank of uninviting pebbles, the sea black and dead. The endless cawing of seagulls; the abrasive, salty wind that made you feel like your were hanging on to the edge of the earth. He certainly couldn’t imagine CJ enjoying it here . . .
Ray Robinson, the author of Jawbone Lake, is a post-graduate of Lancaster University where he received a PhD in Creative Writing. Jawbone Lake is his fourth novel with Forgetting Zoe being awarded Thriller of the Month by the Observer newspaper.
To finish this review, here’s a photo of the Heights of Abraham, a major tourist attraction in Matlock Bath, named after the Plains of Abraham, also known as the Heights of Abraham, in Quebec, Canada, where James Wolfe died in battle.