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The Review: Clearwater, by Kim McCullough

Clearwater

Warning: if you pick up this book, clear your schedule and find a comfortable chair. You won’t budge until you’ve finished it. Kim McCullough has written a gripping tale of love and loss, family and friendship, with memorable characters and a tension-filled plot.

When Claire Sullivan’s mother takes a job at a remote Northern Manitoba settlement, Claire and her older twin siblings have no choice but to accompany her. Little do they suspect the enduring influence that their time in Clearwater will have on their lives. Claire’s mother is single and busy (read: irresponsible) and the twins are often forced to watch over Claire themselves. But the twins share a special bond that excludes Claire and leaves her longing for a closeness she cannot find in her family.

Instead, she finds it in the boy next next-door. Jeff is a talented artist and a year older than Claire. But with an abusive and alcoholic father, he has troubles of his own. Jeff has also discovered that having a native heritage means no one much cares what he does at school, though they are quick to suspect him of any crime. Claire and Jeff become fast friends, and share a love of the landscape that McCullough renders in stunning detail. Soon their friendship deepens into romance.

Claire’s brother, Daniel, is a gifted pianist but her sister Leah has a hard time finding her way and drifts towards drugs and alcohol. One night she finds more trouble at a party than she bargained for, and her world changes forever.

McCullough doesn’t shy away from real and gritty teenaged problems, and the remote setting adds to the persistent feeling of dislocation.  The setting in this novel has the potency of character, from the colours and moods of the lake to the abandoned residential school. The author creates an admirable combination of depth in characterization with a plot that doesn’t quit. Both Jeff and Claire’s families are well-drawn in all their complexities. As Claire puts it, “It’s surprising what a heart can take.” Indeed. Jeff’s father is particularly terrifying. I found my stomach clenching every time he came onto the scene.

Clearwater takes an interesting risk with point of view, splitting it between third and first. But McCullough achieves a nice balance between the two and it becomes a quick way for readers to orient themselves. I also liked that the novel followed these characters into adulthood.

The symbolism of flight is used effectively and is never heavy-handed. The proximity of the airport, the loons that have trouble lifting off, the owl that Leah hits with the car at the beginning of the novel – all remind us of how weighted with baggage these people are. It is fitting that the novel ends with flight.

“There’s no sense loving someone halfway,” Claire says to her brother Daniel. McCullough shows us what it means to invest ourselves fully in a relationship – both the cost and the fulfillment.

Clearwater is a compelling read that both teens and adults will enjoy. It is published by Coteau Books (2013).