A guide to POTSDAM
Novel set in Upstate New York, near Monticello
14th August 2017
The Room By The Lake by Emma Dibdin, novel set in Upstate New York, near Monticello.
Caitlin has fled to New York from London, following the death of her Mother who had mental health issues, and from her father, who has been sliding into alcohol excess. She needed to escape. Thus she hopped on a plane to the Big Apple and spent several days just hanging out, walking the streets and trying to get her brain sorted. She is in quite a fragile state and highly suggestible.
At a party she meets Jake and they soon forge a deeper bond, so much so that he offers to drive her up to his family home, near Monticello, in Upstate New York, a mere 5 days after meeting. She agrees, although part of her knows this is an extremely quick turn of events. They hop in a car and speed up North.
“Home” for Jake is a large house, filled with young people, overseen by Don. This is not a family in any traditional sense, there are no biological ties, and she naturally feels she has been taken for a ride (literally). However after fleetingly wanting to leave, she decides to give the group dynamic a try and before long she is immersed in their rituals. Days of intense physical activity, with dubiously nutritious food (based on Paleolithic eating principles), followed by periods of fasting, are interspersed with evening sessions in a circle for emotional catharsis. One-to-one therapy sessions with Don, the resident psychotherapist, are on offer too, and they are much sought after. These take place in a cabin, past the eponymous Lake of the title and through a wood. A packet of Oreos proffered by Don, given the diet in the main house, can tip his clients over the edge into spilling their innermost thoughts and concerns, as he patiently listens and guides.
The writing is fresh, and as the book opens, there is a real crackle and energy to it. It certainly pulled me in and I was fascinated by how Caitlin, soon renamed Kate, finds herself pulled into the ethos of the community. The author is great at portraying an underlying unease and a darkness. But there came a point for me, with much to-ing and fro-ing in the forest by the lake, where the storyline turned in on itself. It was a very promising start, with a well crafted linear trajectory, that, just like the characters flailing amongst the trees looking for ribbons (just like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs were intended to show the way back home), got lost along the way. I am not a great fan of having an event dropped in summarily and only thereafter being given the explanation – it leaves me feeling that I have missed a beat, perhaps failed to pick up a clue that was essential to understanding. Did I lose concentration somewhere along the way? This often disruptive technique is then used to explain and unpick some events towards to the end of the book.
Overall the balance of the narrative in The Room By The Lake can get weighed down by the telling, rather than the often more effective method of showing. The psychology is of course central to this kind of storyline, but I felt it was generally a bit muddled and needed a little more shaping and insight.
Of Caitlin the author writes: “..she got lost so much more than she thought possible” and as a reader, this also applied to my reading experience. There is, however, clear talent for writing, and there is a good story in here. It will certainly be interesting to see where this author goes next.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
Love novels set in the cult community? We have two further recommendations for you:
The Girls by Emma Cline set in California
Evie Boyd is desperate to be noticed. In the summer of 1969, empty days stretch out under the California sun. The smell of honeysuckle thickens the air and the sidewalks radiate heat. Until she sees them. The snatch of cold laughter. Hair, long and uncombed. Dirty dresses skimming the tops of thighs. Cheap rings like a second set of knuckles. The girls. And at the centre, Russell. Russell and the ranch, down a long dirt track and deep in the hills. Incense and clumsily strummed chords. Rumours of sex, frenzied gatherings, teen runaways. Was there a warning, a sign of things to come? Or is Evie already too enthralled by the girls to see that her life is about to be changed forever?
See you in September by Charity Norman, set in New Zealand
It was supposed to be a short trip – a break in New Zealand before her best friend’s wedding. But when Cassy waved goodbye to her parents, they never dreamed that it would be years before they’d see her again. Having broken up with her boyfriend, Cassy accepts an invitation to stay in an idyllic farming collective. Overcome by the peace and beauty of the valley and swept up in the charisma of Justin, the community’s leader, Cassy becomes convinced that she has to stay. As Cassy becomes more and more entrenched in the group’s rituals and beliefs, her frantic parents fight to bring her home – before Justin’s prophesied Last Day can come to pass.