With Aesop Lake, Sarah Ward establishes a firm place for herself between her chosen careers of social worker and author.
Sarah Ward’s Aesop Lake is a deceptively gentle yet fierce novel about trauma and recovery. Ward, a social worker, brings a great amount of expertise and empathy to her subject, yet she balances this with crisp, intelligent prose and also finds a clever way to weave Aesop’s fables in the narrative. This latter move could have easily been sloppily incorporated or twee, but instead raises adds a universality to a tale that could have been misconstrued as niche. Aesop Lake is written with young adults in mind, but it is a book that will appeal to readers of all ages, though parents of teenagers may find themselves particularly moved.
The novel follows Leda, a 17-year-old who witnesses a hate crime against a teenage gay couple who are discovered skinny dipping and making out at a local lake. One member of the couple, Ricky, is severely injured, while the other, Jonathan, is understandably traumatized. To make matters worse for Leda, her boyfriend David was the architect of the assault, and threatens to turn Leda’s troubled mother into the police if she tells anyone. Jonathan and Leda, the novel’s two narrators, find themselves forced into silence until they both end up at Aesop Lake for summer vacation and find themselves able to lean on each other for support.
The particular appeal of Aesop Lake lies in where Ward exerts her focus. In the wrong hands, the same general story could easily have become a Lifetime-movie-esque courtroom melodrama, a sappy love story or a tale of righteous vengeance. Ward narrows in on friendship and recovery. In doing so, she examines the web of trauma spun by hate crimes, particularly when young people are involved. She also displays the tricky process between not being defined by abuse while not ignoring it either.
The introduction of Aesop’s fables into the plot isn’t so subtle as to not be clear, but they also aren’t treated as accessories to the plot. Rather, they build a grander mythology beneath the overarching story, similar in a sense to the El-ahrairah stories in Watership Down do, though with less mysticism. They also help weave a definition of human decency into the story’s framework, which serves as a careful reprimand for those who can’t find their way to condemning the attack for political or religious reasons.
Aesop Lake also succeeds in not fetishizing the attack on Jonathan and Ricky. So many films, television series and novels luridly and almost gleefully portray violence against queer people and then attempt to justify it in the name of realism. Ward’s tale is authentic – in fact, she was inspired to write Aesop Lake after reading a news story – but it puts its focus on the aftermath of the event rather than spending too much time indulging in the event itself. It isn’t avoided, but it isn’t magnified either.
And just as the crime itself is moved through efficiently, the rest of the novel passes at a steady pace, which is refreshing in these days of very talky YA novels. The chapters are short and brisk, yet conversations are given enough time to have nuance and subtext. It’s a speedy read without being a slight one, which is something that such a heart wrenching subject demands, particularly when the author has teen readers in mind.
With Aesop Lake, Sarah Ward establishes a firm place for herself between her chosen careers of social worker and author. She brings careful, precise and bighearted writing to a devastating and painful topic that she understands professionally and academically as well as humanely. It is a hopeful book but also an honest one, a book that shows the awful things that happen between humans but also they ways in which we can help one another heal.