I’m willing to admit that I don’t always finish novels. It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while, something prevents me from finishing something that I’m trying to read.
That’s what happened the first time I picked up Sugarmilk Falls, by Ilona Van Mil. It was a few years back, and now I can’t quite remember why I stopped reading it.
But a couple of weeks ago, it jumped out at me from my bookshelf. I decided I needed to give it another shot.
Sugarmilk Falls is a small community in northern Canada. It doesn’t often see outsiders, and those who do come usually only stay long enough to finish whatever job happened to bring them there. But one outsider brings with her a secret. One that will lead some of the community’s most prolific members to desperate acts.
Sugarmilk Falls covers a lot of ground in its 300 and some pages. It doesn’t exactly keep a steady timeline, instead jumping from one event to another, across both past and present.
I’ll admit, that jumping around can be a bit difficult to follow at times. But, it’s definitely worth it. The plot of the novel captivated me; it left me questioning things to the very end. And even though I was saddened by what had happened to some of the characters, I was actually quite happy with the ending. It fit the rest of the novel, and was just the right kind of bittersweet.
Hidden among the glacial hills and lakes of the Canadian Shield lies Sugarmilk Falls, a close-knit community with the worst of secrets. Everyone, including the aging priest and the town’s sole policeman, who have their own reasons for concealing the facts, remembers a different version of what really happened there over twenty years ago.
But secrets cannot stay buried forever. As the thick snow of a winter’s night sets in, the inhabitants gather together, induced by a questioning stranger to talk openly for the first time about the sinister events of the past. Some think that it all began when Grand’mère Osweken, an Ojibwa shaman, lost the maple forests on a gamble during a game of craps. Others contend it goes further back, to the arrival of the schoolteacher Marina Grochowska, a newcomer with a tightly guarded past. Or perhaps it really started years before that when the woodsman Zack Guillem discovered a curious powdery coating over an area of foliage in the bush.
Beautifully crafted and darkly compelling, this is a remarkable debut that captures the spirit and repression of a blighted community as it slowly turns in on itself. Sugarmilk Falls has earned comparisons with David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, as it similarly takes readers deep inside a community riven by prejudice and by the secrets of the past.