What was it I said I was looking for in a book? Interesting, complex characters. Lyrical or at least engaging writing. A quick pace. A good idea for a story. Add atmosphere, secrets, compelling twists, and a dark past to that list, and you’ve got The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman. It’s everything I wanted!
Jane Hudson, recently divorced, has returned to her private high school, Heart Lake, as the Latin teacher. A townie, she was a scholarship girl always desperate to prove herself. During her senior year of school, both of her roommates committed suicide. And now that Jane is back at the school, one of her students also attempts suicide. When pages of the journal she lost at school start appearing, and one girl dies, Jane is drawn into the present mystery and back into her memories of what happened to her friends Lucy and Deidre twenty years before.
The novel is divided into three parts–the first and third concern Jane in the present, and the middle section goes back to her teenage years, including her family background and the tragic events of her senior year. In the present she tries to solve the mystery of how and why her past is showing up again, and in the past we see the seeds of what is happening now. As past and present meet and more threads are drawn together, the narrative starts to shift within chapters as well as the story nears the climax. It’s a nice stylistic touch.
Heart Lake is practically a character on its own. It’s constantly referenced, the weather is described as it affects the lake, it’s been the silent witness to the secrets of generations of girls. The scenery, particularly the ice of the lake, is given lush description. You feel the cold, and can hear the ice cracking. Latin, the dead language of the title, is also key to the symbolism and clues, so pay attention to names!
The Lake of Dead Languages is a very intricately plotted book, filled with connections and secrets and bonds of secrecy and betrayal. There’s a strong element of the intensity of the parent-child bond (for good and for ill), as well as the intensity of friendship. All of the mysteries are solved in the end, and while you might call it early (as I did), it’s still an atmospheric and satisfying journey.
There’s so much going on in this book that there are lots of readalike ideas. The Secret History by Donna Tartt is an obvious one, with its literary style and story about a college classics clique with dark secrets. In that same vein, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (see here for blog post), or Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris, which is about a classics teacher at a boys’ school who finds himself upended by changes and a threat from the past.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo, for the stuck-in-a-small-town angle, as well as the family and community connections that last for generations, could also be a good choice. I’d also suggest Jennifer McMahon’s Dismantled, for the atmosphere, dark and intricate secrets, friendships a bit too close for comfort, and lake imagery.