Johnny and Pauline MacKinnon have been married for twenty-five years; they live in Florida, where they run the ice factory which Pauline inherited from her father. When the story opens the future of the factory is under threat because, following a serious leak of ammonia at the plant, the health and safety investigation has determined that the problem was caused by poor maintenance and a massive fine has now been imposed. Johnny, adamant that no short-cuts had been taken, is convinced that the leak was caused by an act of sabotage and that he knows who was responsible. He has lodged an appeal but, unless someone in the community comes forward with proof to support his theory, the factory will have to close, throwing all the employees out of work.
Johnny was originally from Scotland, where he had married Sharon, his first wife, when they were both very young. They stayed together for a few years after their son, Corran, was born but various stresses resulted in her meeting and falling in love with Toole and, subsequently, their mutual decision to separate. Out of work in Scotland, Johnny accepted the offer of a job at the Florida factory, where he fell in love with Pauline. However, he maintained a good relationship with Sharon and continued to support his son, who always spent his holidays in Florida. In his teens Corran started to take drugs, eventually becoming addicted to heroin. Johnny and Pauline paid for several expensive rehab courses, re-mortgaging their home to pay for the final one.
When the story starts Johnny is 30 years old, living a drug-free life in an isolated area of Scotland and, separated from his imprisoned, drug-addicted partner, is now a single parent, bringing up Lucy, his nine-month-old daughter. However, following the disappearance of Pauline’s wedding ring, which Johnny believes was taken by Corran to raise money for drugs, he hasn’t spoken to his son for almost a year and has never seen his granddaughter. When Johnny collapses on the factory floor, medical tests reveal that he has a brain tumour and surgery is scheduled for two weeks later. This catastrophic news makes Johnny reflect on what the future might hold. Realising that this pre-surgery time offers him the opportunity to build bridges with Corran and to meet his baby granddaughter, he decides to return to Scotland.
Although I had been attracted to this story when I read the opening chapters on the “First Impression”, Readers First site, I wasn’t prepared for the way in which I would feel so compellingly engrossed in the lives of the characters, and the dilemmas and conflicts each of them faced. Once I had started to read I was reluctant to put the book down until I had finished it – then when I had finished it, I felt bereft of their company! The author’s skill at creating multi-dimensional characters was demonstrated throughout her story-telling, with each one feeling credible, no matter whether they played a major or a minor role.
The story is told mainly through Johnny’s eyes but with enough input from the other characters to add a rich and convincing dimension to the development of the plot. He and Pauline didn’t have children of their marriage, although she feels very close to Corran, and one of the strands followed is her reflections on her childlessness when she is facing the possibility of a future without Johnny. The reader also follows her as she attempts to come to terms with the fact that her wealth and privilege has been derived from her father’s ruthless exploitation of his workers, as well as his violence and racism. Having refused to fully examine or challenge these unacceptable attitudes in the past, she now finds it difficult to resolve them because he has developed dementia.
In Scotland, Sharon, a hospice nurse and breast cancer survivor, continues to struggle as she works full time, spends weekends helping Corran (who lives a three-hour drive away) with baby-sitting her granddaughter whilst he works extra shifts on the local ferry. At the same time, she is having to deal with the realisation that Toole, her husband, is in the early stages of dementia. The exploration of the pressures she faced on a daily basis made me feel exhausted on her behalf!
Corran is very realistically portrayed as an addict who is constantly having to struggle to resist the lure of drugs. The destructive effects that his addiction has had on his relationships was well captured; there were moments when the moving descriptions of the difficulties he and his father had in trying to communicate with each other almost had me in tears.
Following the diagnosis of the brain tumour Johnny is told that he mustn’t drive, so he recruits Chemal, the seventeen-year-old son of his neighbours, to drive him around. Although he doesn’t yet have a license, the teenager proves to be an excellent driver and when Johnny decides to go to Scotland, he takes Chemal with him. I came to love Chemal, a very smart but socially-challenged young man, who has parents who appear to show little interest in him. He has been excluded from school because of his struggles with boundaries and authority and his inability to speak quietly leads to some occasionally moving, occasionally hilarious, interactions. I really enjoyed the relationship which developed between Johnny and Chemal, with the “second-chances” it offered each of them.
In addition to the characters I have already mentioned, there isn’t one secondary character who doesn’t leap off the page as a result of the author’s ability to describe simple interchanges using highly evocative word-pictures. The authenticity of her perceptive portrayals of each of her flawed, complex characters is one of the real strengths of this novel, as is the way in which she demonstrates the insights and strengths they gain as they confront their demons. Her descriptions of the steamy heat of Florida with the frigid cold of the ice factory, of frantic urban Glasgow and the comparison with rural Scotland, add another evocative dimension to the story.
Much as I enjoyed this book, there are two factors which influenced my decision to give it a four, rather than a five, star rating. I think that the final section of the story felt a little too rushed and, whilst some of the resolutions felt realistic and credible, others bordered on offering too much of a fairy-tale ending which, given the nature of most of the rather more “gritty” writing, came as a something of a surprise.
Linda Hepworth 4/4
The Ice House by Laura Lee Smith
Grove Press 9781611854909 pbk Jan 2019