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Folk and Mirrors 

Book Review: Mirror Lake by Thomas Christopher Greene

Published July 30, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

Sometimes in a life, as we all know, our experiences collide with another person's in a manner that can only be considered fate: something larger than happenstance, an intermingling of otherwise disparate lives, for a greater purpose." So ruminates Nathan Carter, the thirtysomething flatlander at the center of Thomas Christopher Greene's Mirror Lake.

A first novel by the Vermont College graduate and Montpelier resident, Mirror Lake tells its haunting, moving story gently, with the soft curves of a confessional voice. From beginning to end, it reminds us of the raw power of love and loss.

The story pairs Nathan with an imposing, curmudgeonly native named Wallace Fiske. Through the undulating rage and calm of Vermont's distinct seasons, these two men become the unlikeliest of friends. Snow and serendipity brings them together. In time, the synchronicity of their separate lives enables them both to finally let go of secrets, of old, useless ways of being, of the intense loneliness each carries around like a tumor.

Told in Nathan's first-person voice, the novel alternates between the two characters' stories. Thankfully, both are equally riveting, so we don't spend half the book wishing it only featured one. Constructed in this overlapping fashion, Mirror Lake turns out to be a universal tale of friendship, and of how people can grow and deepen if they have the courage to look at themselves with eyes wide and true.

Before Nathan meets Wallace, he is a young man "[trying] to anchor himself in the arms of a woman; a man of many fears, most of them irrational; a man afflicted with the syndrome particular to people who shirk the art of living purposefully, focusing all their energy instead on things they can never solve or understand, things like the sky and the spinning of the planet."

Nathan grew up a solitary boy. With a working father and a mother who died of bone cancer when he was only 6, he was good at being alone. In college he studied philosophy, which taught him only to be more adept at moving deeper inside himself, "something [he] did not need." The sudden death of his father makes him pack up his life in Boston and head north to Vermont, where he hopes to ground himself. In this state of emotional transition, Nathan finds himself open to Wallace's story.

Newly transplanted to a small fictitious town called Eden -- not to be confused with the real Vermont town by that name -- Nathan spends his first weeks "exploring endless dirt roads that dip and weave through those pitched valleys." Trying to quiet his mind and move beyond his father's death, he explores forests of thick poplar, shadbush, maples and evergreens as well as a tapestry of farms and old, porched houses at which he sees locals like "an old woman wearing hip waders and standing in a child's plastic pool, a slaughtered pig at her feet."

Like the landscapes of his characters' psyches, Greene's Vermont is genuine and richly painted, itself a player in the story with secrets and memories all its own. If Nathan had moved from Boston to Santa Barbara or Memphis or anywhere else instead of Eden, Vermont, Greene's novel probably would have withered on the first page.

Once settled, Nathan lands a job delivering mail to the rural farms and families, "good work for a man trying to turn over leaves." He knows about Wallace -- the gruff local legend whose best companions are the land and a bottle of Scotch whiskey -- because of his vitriolic aversion to junk mail. But it isn't until Nathan's old USPO Jeep flips over in a serious winter storm that the two men get to know each other.

Seasons roll one into the next and the new friends share many dinners, drinks and stories. Nathan can't help but see his own life reflected in his friend's as Wallace's past unfolds: his dead wife Nora, his miscarried baby he buried years earlier under the apple tree on the hill above his house, his live-in farmhand who turns out to be a friend and an enemy, and his unflagging loyalty and love for his family's farmland.

There is always a danger in fiction of creating one character to serve as a foil for another; one story overlaps the other and the characters bend like wet cardboard into nothing more than a flimsy means to an end. Although Wallace is Nathan's foil, Greene breathes such fresh New England air into the lungs of these characters, giving them both strengths and flaws like the rest of us, that they continue to roam about inside our heads long after we've put the book on the shelf. We do not for a minute think Wallace exists on the page only to reveal how Nathan is able to grow as he does. In our imaginations, Wallace is bone and sinew, still out there tilling the land, for all we know.

Through his multi-layered characters, and with seeming effortlessness, Greene has offered up a mirror for us to regard our own reflections. "Soon it would be spring, and the ice and snow would melt and the river would run high, and the world would turn instantly and shockingly green, until the only reminder of winter was a thin membrane of ice on Mirror Lakes everywhere. Our job in that time was to watch that melt, too." What is it that we see: Regret? Sadness? Love? Acceptance?

Mirror Lake could have fallen into cliche at any time. It could have been sugary and sentimental, obvious, as predictable as a face reflected on the smooth skin of an evening lake. What Greene gives us instead is a story written in the way a canoe floats down a lazy summer river; a story of landscapes and seasons, of mistakes and memories, wishes and truths. It is a story that reminds us, for better or for worse, that we often overestimate the effects of time.

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