"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Not-so-sweet mystery in maple syrup country

Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Sugarmilk Falls
By Ilona Van Mil
Picador, 359 pp, 12.99 pounds

Think of it as Canadian Gothic.

As in Grant Wood's iconic painting, everything looks normal in the tiny northern Ontario town of Sugarmilk Falls, but there is something sinister just under the surface that you can't quite put your finger on. Replace the farmhouse with a sugar shack, add touques and snow, and you've got Ilona Van Mil's debut mystery novel, Sugarmilk Falls.

A mysterious young visitor has come to town asking probing questions about the past. Horrific, but unspecified crimes are mentioned. The town cop and the local priest would rather things were left alone, and the town's other leading citizens are nervous that someone will say too much.

Did the trouble start with the mysterious fire at the Braemar Lodge or with the arrival of the new schoolteacher? Who really owns the maple forests around the town that provides it with its name and livelihood? Where do Father Souris and the gambling Ojibwa shaman Grand-mere Osweken and her clan fit in?

Dutch-born Van Mil grew up in Canada and captures the landscape and the isolation of her setting well, but her attempts to use shifting points of view and different narrative voices come off as forced and artificial, distracting from an otherwise excellent tale. Sugarmilk Falls won the British Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award for unpublished works in 2002, and deservedly so. Van Mil, who teaches law at the University of Essex, writes beautifully. There is not a clunky sentence or inelegant description in the book. That said, the real plot at times seems buried under a plethora of red herrings and maple syrup references.

The author does deserve credit for her sensitive approach to the complex issues of racism and native land claims that are central to Sugarmilk Falls and for her artful handling of insular small town personal politics without once descending into stereotypes. Her portrait of a village turning in on itself is a telling one, and her ambitious inclusion of larger philosophical themes raises Sugarmilk Falls--which turns out to be a capsule description of the story as well as its title--above the level of a simple genre whodunit.

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