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Joan Sullivan: ‘Last Lullaby’ a page-turner with a few wrinkles

Book cover
Book cover - Submitted

Last Lullaby
by Alice Walsh
Vagrant Press
$21.95   228 pages

Paddy’s Arm was once a quiet Newfoundland outport — all the more quiet since the cod moratorium – but the expansion of St. Bridget’s from a small community college to a major degree-granting institution has changed things.

The drama department is particularly renowned and attracts students from across North America. The criminology courses are popular, too, both with law enforcement officers and undergraduates thinking of law school.

It was a teaching offer in that field that brought Lauren LaVallee to the town. The work was welcome as Lauren was expecting her child, Bailey, and had some decisions to make about life as a single parent. In addition, her career as a lawyer had fallen under a serious cloud. Accused of violating attorney-client privilege, Lauren had almost been disbarred. Fortunately, disciplinary action stopped short of that final step, but it’s only four years on that Lauren feels ready to practice again, joining the local firm of Beck Hayes.

She’s still teaching, and with Bailey in pre-school, her days are busy. Her social life is filled with friends, like Emma Buckle, St. Bridget’s acting English chair. Emma has a daughter Bailey’s age, and is also single – though for a different reason, her husband having been killed soon after Dylan was born. And there’s Claire, Lauren’s confidante since their McGill student days. Claire just had a baby girl, too, Ariel, but her post-partum depression has thrown a shadow over her first months of motherhood, and the home she has made with her husband, Bram. 

Small community

While Paddy’s Arm is growing, with high-end shops and good restaurants and the (unfortunately named) café Newfie B’ys, it’s still not that big a place, which makes the cycle of loss and violence that opens “Last Lullaby” all the more troubling.

One of Lauren’s students, Jade Roberts, has been turning in some good papers, but she’s now missing deadlines. She, too, is raising a baby, Cara, on her own, and her lack of ability to concentrate on schoolwork might cost her a vital school bursary. She’s already had her phone cut off, but when Lauren and Emma visit to encourage her to continue with her studies she’s reluctant to promise commitment. Maybe what she really needs is to put Cara in foster care for a while. Besides, somebody already promised her a lot of money for — a topic she quickly draws back from.

While Paddy’s Arm is growing, with high-end shops and good restaurants and the (unfortunately named) café Newfie B’ys, it’s still not that big a place, which makes the cycle of loss and violence that opens “Last Lullaby” all the more troubling.

Lauren then makes plans to visit Claire; she’ll bring Bailey and it’ll be fun. Lauren is also hoping to privately gauge Claire’s frame of mind and coping skills and how she’s responding to the raft of medication her doctor, Anya Kaminsky, has prescribed. But as she pulls up to Claire’s house she sees an ambulance and soon learns the terrible news: Ariel is dead, and a distraught Claire has been sedated. Soon she will be arrested, accused of shaking her baby to death in the grip of “baby blues” that tipped over into full-blown psychosis.

Lauren steps in to help her friend, legally and emotionally, but the ensuing news coverage brings her past in Montreal into bold headlines. Her professional indiscretion is made public, and used to discredit her defence of Claire. And then Bailey’s father, Daniel, sees Lauren on the news. He hasn’t gotten over her abrupt departure from his life, and resolves to reconnect. Not that Daniel is exactly free to pursue a relationship, for reasons that would be a bit of a spoiler to reveal.

The central event — whether misfortune, accident, or crime — soon pulls other townspeople into its vortex.

Jade drops out of school, a brief email referencing a well-paying job elsewhere her last connection. Andrew Collins, the medical doctor treating Claire as she awaits bail, says he has something urgent to tell Lauren, but then fails to show up for their arranged date. Then Lauren’s colleagues Frances Turple and Annabelle Chandler adopt a baby girl, but produce a stream of excuses to keep people from meeting her (and they change physicians, from Dr. Kaminsky to a clinic in another town). And who was the mysterious woman in the red coat seen outside Claire’s the day Ariel died? And why has an anonymous student posted on line that she dropped out of Chandler’s class because ‘What she did was unforgivable?”

The mystery is gripping enough that a reader can ignore the occasional jarring, or too “on” note – like the name of that café, or for that matter the community itself, and the, to me at least, not quite believable relationship between Lauren and Daniel. Most will find it a satisfying and nicely-paced page turner.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Teleg

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