The fictional town of Solace, perched on the edge of a lake and a forest that stretches all the way to the Arctic, offers little, at first sight, in the way of comfort. It is autumn, 1972. The only cafe is shut by seven in the evening and the waitress has the social graces of a rattlesnake. Liam Kane, a townie from Toronto, arrives there after getting a divorce and quitting his job to take possession of a house left to him by an old woman he can scarcely remember. Dreading a northern winter, he intends to sell it and get away before the first snowflake falls. A seven-year-old girl, Clara Jordon, watches disapprovingly from the house next door as he places all that’s left of his marriage – four cardboard boxes – in the middle of the living-room floor. She keeps vigil at the window for her sister, Rose, who has recently gone missing, but she is also custodian of her friend Mrs Orchard’s house, where she goes to feed the cat and get away from the anguish that’s tearing her own home apart. She waits for Mrs Orchard to come back, as well as Rose. No one has told her that Mrs Orchard has died in hospital.
The novel shifts by turns between Liam’s and Clara’s stories. Woven between is the voice of Elizabeth Orchard, who, dying in hospital, addresses a monologue to her adored late husband. Thirty years before, desolated by childlessness, she had found comfort in loving a neighbour’s child, Liam. She remembers him, aged