Second novels ought to be shelved separately, cordoned off with police tape and posted with a warning sign or two. (Don't believe me? Ask "Cold Mountain's" Charles Frazier.) I'm both thrilled and nervous when picking up the follow-up to a much-loved debut. It's like paying a visit to a friend you haven't seen in years: You want to be able to say, with all sincerity, "You look fantastic! And your kids – such models of grace and decorum!" That's why it's such a pleasure to report that Canadian author Mary Lawson has nimbly skipped over the "sophomore slump."
Lawson's first novel, 2002's "Crow Lake," was a keeper. It was the story of orphaned brothers struggling to raise their little sister and keep their family together in northern Ontario. The Other Side of the Bridge, which was a candidate for this year's Man Booker Prize, is a somewhat bleaker tale and maybe a shade less enthralling. But it's also a beautifully written, complex tale of sibling relationships set in the same spare farming community.
Arthur Dunn is a stolid, dependable, thoroughly decent giant. His younger brother, Jacob, is sharp, handsome, and thoroughly unreliable. Guess which one their mother loves best?
Proving that parenting hasn't necessarily advanced all that far since Old Testament times, the boys have been divvied up, à la Jacob and Esau. Their mother dotes on Jacob, shielding her delicate boy from grubby farm work; their father depends on Arthur and makes no secret of his contempt for his youngest. When we first meet the boys, they're "playing" by throwing knives at each other's bare feet. This is about as loving as their relationship gets until their teens, when an accident on a bridge adds guilt to the equation.
The novel bounces back and forth between decades, alternating between their childhood during the Great Depression and World War II and the mid-1950s, when Arthur, now a husband and father, has taken over the family farm. (Jacob is nowhere to be seen.)
Lawson uses another teenage boy, Ian, to serve as both the reader's window into Arthur's adult life and as the catalyst for tragedy. Ian, the local doctor's son, took a part-time job as Arthur's farmhand to be near Laura, Arthur's wife, for whom he nurtures an obsessive crush. Ian grapples with his own family issues. His mother couldn't stand the isolation of small-town life, and has left her husband and son for Toronto and another man.
His mother's flight leaves Ian with a moral conundrum. If he leaves his hometown after graduation, his dad will be alone. But Ian has long chafed against the town's expectation that he will become the small town's "next" Dr. Christopherson.
Lawson was raised on a farm in Ontario and uses her knowledge to evoke the rhythms of life. Take this passage when Ian contemplates his days working with a man who makes Harpo Marx sound like a chatterbox. "In any case, it wasn't really silence. There were plenty of sounds, mostly from the horses; the heavy, regular thud of their feet, the powerful sawing of their breath, the clanking and creaking of their harnesses. And there were birds and cicadas, and the buzzing of insects and the barking of dogs and the odd woodpecker hammering away in the distance."
Lawson is a rare writer who takes the time to make decency interesting. In fact, Jacob is more of a cipher than his "boring" brother. And in Dr. Christopherson's devotion to his small town there are echoes of Atticus Finch. The characters' goodness does not diminish their share of death and unhappiness. But it does offer an assurance that, even when tragedy strikes, people will find a way to push onward.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.