Lakewood by Megan Giddings

This was a striking, chilling novel, which I’ve chosen to tag as horror although it is of the disquieting sort and relies less on jump-scares and gore (although the gore is not entirely absent). It contains very apt, detailed descriptions of contemporary young people and family dramas; characterization and specificity are strengths of Giddings’ writing no matter what she does. But it quickly moves beyond writerly deftness into seriously troubling subject matter, to make this a novel both thought-provoking and book-club-worthy, and riveting.

We meet Lena when she is a college student burying her beloved grandmother, Miss Toni. Her mother (Miss Toni’s daughter) Deziree is present, and can be a good friend to the younger woman; but Deziree is frequently ill, and it was Miss Toni who Lena thinks of as Mom. Now she is faced with a stack of bills: medical bills for Deziree and for Miss Toni, bills for the funeral, the house, general costs of living. She must maintain a high GPA to keep her scholarship. Her college roommate Tanya is a great friend but from a walk of life that makes her unable to empathize with financial strain. A letter arrives. “An invitation to participate in a series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception. The Lakewood Project. It offered Lena and her family health insurance if she was selected to be a participant. Also housing and a weekly stipend… It was addressed specifically to her.” The money is so good – and more importantly, the medical care for Deziree – that Lena leaves college. If she can last a year in Lakewood, it could be life-changing.

Lena is a young Black woman in an unnamed Michigan city with a college and a sizable Black population. Lakewood is a small Michigan town in which she is almost the only Black face. Place is not one of the biggest elements of this story (and maybe I overemphasize it because you know it is always an important one for me), but the city/small town divide definitely accounts for part of Lena’s estrangement; she notices the differences in noise and quiet, and the anonymity of the one versus the sense of being watched in the other, which is of course very much about race as well as population density. Lena is very aware of race. With a single exception, the participants in the Lakewood Project are Black, Latinx or Native American. The staff, doctors and observers are all white. She is conscious about performing a “safe” version of herself in the town of Lakewood. The study itself involves acting, but so does her larger life.

I’ll stop here, because I hope to encourage you to read this book and be surprised by its turns as I was. But you can safely see from here that Lakewood is about the sinister side of medical research studies and race and racism in this country, both throughout history and in the present. Giddings is a rising writer of note, and this novel is quietly terrifying.

Rating: 8 teeth.

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