Libraries are awesome: S.M. Beiko’s “The Lake and the Library”

The Lake and the Library by S.M. Beiko (ECW Press, 2013)

First off, let me say as a card-car­ry­ing shelf mon­key that I’m inclined to like any book with the word ‘library’ in the title.

Plus, lakes? Who doesn’t like lakes (Stephen Harper’s envi­ron­ment-rap­ing gov­ern­ment aside)?

So a book enti­tled The Lake and the Library had me at the title. Luck­i­ly, S.M. Beiko proves as sure a hand at sto­ry-writ­ing as she is at craft­ing titles.

A YA nov­el with def­i­nite cross-over appeal to adults with a taste for the fan­tas­tic, L&L con­cerns the book­ish 16-year-old Ash, an imag­i­na­tive teen who is final­ly see­ing the real­iza­tion of a dream many chil­dren share; she’s leav­ing a town seem­ing­ly designed to suck the life out of her. The unim­pres­sive prairie bor­ough of Treade, Man­i­to­ba has impris­oned her and her moth­er for ten long years, and a chance to leave, for Ash, is like see­ing the sun after a decade of cloudy days.

I cur­rent­ly had this pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with all the things that being in Treade had robbed me of. Right now, love stood on the top of the list. The love I’d dug into through count­less books, sto­ries, myths. The love that poets sought to snatch from the air in front of them, the kind of love that sang to sing, and so on, and so on…I would go some­where else where it could hap­pen. The but­ter­flies that the thought raised were more like anx­ious bees in my stom­ach. I want­ed love and all it entailed, and I was con­vinced that I was ready for it. I’d be away from the suf­fo­cat­ing grasp of a self-pity­ing, with­ered town.

Yet Treade (as with all seem­ing­ly nor­mal set­tings in fan­ta­sy nov­els) hides a mag­i­cal, Nar­nia-like secret; a glo­ri­ous library weird­ly ensconced with­in a decrepit build­ing des­tined for demo­li­tion. Inhab­it­ed by a mute young man named Li, the library is a lit­er­ary TARDIS, big­ger on the inside and rife with spec­tac­u­lar goings-ons. Paper birds flock through the rafters, doors appear and dis­ap­pear, and each tome Ash cracks open reveals new uni­vers­es in a man­ner way beyond a sim­ple read­ing of the words.

I raised my head from the page. The library had melt­ed away, van­ished, and there was, very clear­ly, a night sky above us. It was a colour that I couldn’t pin­point, torch­light fight­ing for focus against the stars. I was stand­ing in the mid­dle of a road made of indi­vid­ual stones and paint­ed with peonies, olive tress danc­ing in the lilt­ing breeze, and the night was hot against my cheeks. I plucked a flower petal from my hair, and it dis­solved.

I was slight­ly afraid, when Ash falls under Li’s spell and begins to ignore every­one and every­thing aside from her own obses­sion, that L&L might be head­ing toward Twi­light ter­ri­to­ry, where­in the hero­ine sees her new love as the be-all and the end-all of every­thing.  Hap­pi­ly, Beiko, beyond being an immea­sur­ably supe­ri­or writer than Stephanie Mey­er, under­stands such fix­a­tions of youth as being poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous.

Where Mey­er made her lead a pas­sive object wait­ing to be res­cued, Beiko explores through fan­tas­ti­cal back­drops how such youth­ful pas­sions can lead to per­il, both emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal. There are inci­sive par­al­lels to addic­tion in Beiko’s nar­ra­tive, and while read­ing may not appear as dead­ly a depen­dence as that of crys­tal meth, the pow­er­ful sway Li and the library hold over Ash’s per­son­al­i­ty holds the poten­tial to be just as dam­ag­ing to her psy­che.

Here’s the real dif­fer­ence: Twi­light posits that women should await res­cue from their male sav­iours; L&L imag­ines that we all hold the capa­bil­i­ty to res­cue our­selves.

The Lake and the Library is a won­der­ful YA nov­el, wise and often enthralling. Not to harp on the “bet­ter than Twi­light” theme — after all, what isn’t bet­ter than Twi­light? he asks snark­i­ly — but Ash is a true hero, one who is a hel­lu­va bet­ter role mod­el.

Plus, again, there’s a mag­i­cal library. Seri­ous­ly, Beiko could have stopped with that, and it would have been enough for me.