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.