‘Cormorant Lake’ is a haunting, stunning fiction debut

Wednesday, February 17, 2021 - 4:13pm

NOSELL

Elizabeth Yoon

Faith Merino, debut author of “Cormorant Lake,” wanted to write a story told exclusively by women. 

“So much of popular culture and art is predicated on the belief that men will not watch movies or read books or watch TV shows that are told from a woman’s perspective,” Merino said in an interview with The Daily. 

She hopes to change that. 

“Cormorant Lake” is a razor-sharp fiction debut that follows the life of Evelyn, a young woman who kidnaps her roommate’s mistreated children and drives to her hometown of Cormorant Lake, nestled in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Once there, she reconnects with her foster mother Nan, her biological mother Jubilee and a past she wished to forget. Merino, a former journalist and an award-winning short story writer, tells Evelyn’s haunting story with a riveting and compelling urgency. 

“Cormorant Lake” is expansive enough to hold something for every reader. The realms of nature fiction and magical realism intertwine to create a vast, encompassing novel. But above all else, “Cormorant Lake” is a story about the richly layered lives of women. 

“The only content I really really enjoy is content made for women, by women,” Merino said. Merino, the oldest of eight children, grew up in a family led by women. “It was really natural to tell a story of women doing work.” 

Consequently, “Cormorant Lake” doesn’t glamorize any aspect of its characters’ lives. Evelyn struggles to stay awake while working two jobs and experiencing motherhood for the first time, and Nan opens her arms to Evelyn’s children, Lila and Mora, even though she already fights to make ends meet.  

Much of Merino’s literary inspiration comes from Toni Morrison, specifically her 1987 novel “Beloved.”

“I credit Toni Morrison’s books with really shaping my writing and the way that I see the world,” Merino said. 

“Cormorant Lake” is littered with similar fantastical elements, unsettling characters and a disrupted sense of reality. Both novels focus on women living their everyday lives without cutting any corners or softening any edges. The characters are raw, real and vulnerable. 

“So much of storytelling has been told from a white male perspective, that women and people of color haven’t had a choice but to consume that kind of content,” Merino said. Merino hopes to do for others what Toni Morrison did for her.

The characters of “Cormorant Lake” are powerful and unnerving. Both Evelyn and Nan are unreliable narrators and readers must work within these constraints to make sense of the plot. Merino intended to show readers that every perspective is biased, each telling of history is flawed.

“These characters are unstable people in the best sense of the word,” Merino said. “They’re well-meaning people and they love deeply and passionately, but their sense of reality is not trustworthy.” This sense of altered reality plays out wonderfully in the novel, introducing some well-placed, Toni Morrison-esque mystical realism that makes the plot all the more gripping. 

For me, the pinnacle of “Cormorant Lake” is its strong sense of place. 

“I wanted to write a book where the natural landscape itself was a sort of character,” Merino said. The unique geology of the Pacific Northwest is as indispensable to the novel as the characters or plot. Merino’s characters are rooted to their surroundings and know the cedar, spruce and pine forests of their hometown like the back of their hands. 

This depth of setting is aided by Merino’s experienced, trained eye in describing the natural world. “It was something in the sharpness of the shadows, the raggedness of the trees, that reminded her that the ground was big and wanted her,” Merino writes of Evelyn. 

Yet, atypical of many nature-fiction novels, the natural world is portrayed as more than just background for the plot. Inhabitants of Cormorant Lake live on an active volcano, but are more worried about the landslides that routinely bury parts of their town. The earth is an instigator, as much a part of the novel as Evelyn or Nan, constantly shifting and threatening to spill over. 

“There was a loud, echoing crack—a low rumble, the groan of shifting bedrock, of continental unrest,” Merino writes. This dynamic, shifting climate makes “Cormorant Lake” restless and urgent. It’s what compelled me to keep flipping the pages and plant myself more firmly in the novel with each shift of the bedrock.

For Merino, a native of California, depicting the earth in this way seemed only typical. 

“You have no idea where the ground itself is going to be in a few years time, in a few months time, in a week,” Merino told The Daily. 

California’s wildfires frequently make news headlines and are now such a routine occurrence that residents have come to expect them every summer. Many in California are adjusting to a new sense of normal in which smog from wildfires tints the sky red, blocks sunlight and renders the air hazardous to breathe. This uncertainty and dread due to anthropogenic climate change has coined a new term: eco-anxiety. 

“It’s very difficult to go through your day-to-day life when you can’t see the sun, and you can’t see the sky, and you can’t breathe the air,” Merino said. “It’s really terrifying. Existentially terrifying.”

At the heart of it, “Cormorant Lake” is a brilliant, unapologetic story about women whose lives are as unpredictable as the natural world. 

“I wanted the characters to have inner lives to match the landscape,” Merino said. The novel is a refreshing take on motherhood, obligation and the yearning for self-fulfillment.

“Women have these deeply layered, complex lives that aren’t even seen. The work that they do, the labor that they do, the relationships that they nurture — so much of that is below the surface, completely unseen in our day to day lives,” Merino said. This novel demonstrates how appealing such a story can be. 

“Cormorant Lake” is one of the strongest debut novels I’ve encountered in recent years. Merino wastes no words to tell her story — an extraordinary amount is packed into a mere 200 pages. The storyline alone is captivating enough to warrant a read, but Merino’s fantastic character and world building are what really add depth and appeal to the novel. 

If you’re a fan of fiction at all, read “Cormorant Lake.” You won’t regret it.

Daily Arts Writer Trina Pal can be reached at trpal@umich.edu


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