Jane Hudson, the primary character and narrator of The Lake of Dead Languages, is a young woman burdened with a heavy past, a past that includes the deaths (suicides or killings?) of the two best friends of her youth, Matt -- whom she had a crush on -- and Lucy. She is in the midst of dissolving a poor marriage when she returns with her small daughter, Olivia, to teach Latin in the private school to which she was fortunate enough to win a scholarship as a teenager. The school sits on the edge of Heart Lake, a large and, as wonderfully described by Ms. Goodman, mysterious body of water, a lake that weaves its spell upon the hearts and minds of many of the students nearby.
For the lake has its legend, that of the "three sisters," all of whom, delirious with fever from the flu epidemic of 1918, walked into the lake and there drowned, their souls to be forever transformed to stones, three large boulders, large enough to walk on, that sit on the lake's edge. There the spirits of the three sisters sit, forever looking at the waters that claimed their lives.
It was in the waters of Heart Lake that Jane's two friends, Matt and Lucy, also drowned, as well as a school roommate of Lucy and Jane's named Deirdre. These deaths add to the legend of the lake's mysterious pull upon the students. The lake is thought to be hungry for more young girls. And its hunger seems to come in a need for threes -- again, three youngsters have drowned in the waters of the lake.
Jane no sooner arrives to teach at the school then she is confronted by a piece of her past literally as a page from an old diary she once kept while attending the school appears mysteriously in a pile of papers she is to grade. Why is it there? Who put it there? How did this person come to be in possession of her old diary?
And, the reader wonders, what secrets written in it does Jane not want others to see.
Much of the story is done in flashback, a weaving of present and past, and the truth of Jane's past is presented to the reader through these flashbacks. The truth is slowly, bit by bit, revealed to us. And little of the past is what it first seems to be. Flashbacks can be a problem in some novels but they are not in The Lake of Dead Languages. The past and present are seamlessly woven together in the tale. As we learn more about the truth behind the "suicide" of Deirdre and the deaths of Matt and Lucy, more students in the present are also drowning in the lake. The present is presenting a replica of the past as the deaths of the current-day students eerily correspond to the deaths of the three friends of Jane's past.
This is Carol Goodman's first novel. The writing is excellent and Carol Goodman shows a true talent for painting a mood. We can almost hear the waters of the lake lapping on the rocks and feel the cold in our limbs as the winter comes and the waters of the lake begins groaning and popping with its freezing.
The flaw in the book is in the nature of the plot. Goodman generally succeeds in pulling off the action elements but falters in terms of how she offers us the ultimate psychological motivation underlying some of the actions of the characters. In some instances, while the actions themselves flow fairly nicely, the motives and the psychological reactions of the characters seem less than real, and this makes the reader stop and think that something has occurred more for the sake of the author's convenience (or of plot necessity) than out of a true sense of reality. For example, Jane herself accepts the loss of the possession of her daughter a little too easily when her estranged husband just comes and takes her away one day. Olivia's absence of course allows Jane to be alone on the shores of the lake much more often than would otherwise be the case and I could not help but think, after reading of Jane's almost blasť acceptance of her daughter's kidnapping, that this was the true reason the child was taken. This could have worked better had Jane shown much more anger over the taking of the girl. Ultimately the psychological motivation behind the current-day attacks of students also strikes the reader as forced.
Carol Goodman can wonderfully evoke moods and set up scenes that are rich and beautifully realized, and much of the action and mystery surrounding Matt and Lucy and Deirdre is right on the mark. If it was only their mystery that the author was presenting to us then this might very well have been a near perfect tale. With the addition of the present-day killings suddenly occurring at the Heart Lake School for Girls, the book has overreached and stumbles a bit. Still, this is very much a novel worth reading, not the least reason being to enjoy the author's descriptive talent. Given Goodman's abilities revealed by The Lake of Dead Languages, it's safe to say that she will likely produce many wonderful books in the future.