Love in a Time of Dystopia: Silas House’s “Lark Ascending”

When the world disintegrates into turmoil, taking with it every shred of normalcy and love held dear, survival becomes a method of honoring the fallen in Silas House’s seventh novel, Lark Ascending.

Lark is on his deathbed when he writes the story of how he came to be where he is — a mystery until the final pages. The novel begins with Lark crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a refugee ship to Ireland after fleeing the chaos of the United States, which finally caught up to him and his family.

The Appalachian Mountains of Maine had been home to Lark and his family: his parents, his mother’s best friend and her two children, Sera and Arlo. They lived secluded from the wildfires ravaging the land and the oppression of the fundamentalist regime that imprisoned and killed those who opposed their beliefs. After seven years, the fires reached them, and the cohort of six had no choice but to flee. If the Fundies caught them, they would all be slaughtered – the parents for not joining the Fundies, and Lark and Arlo for their love.

“I am ninety years old,” Lark writes, “and I still don’t know a whole lot. But I do know that the worst thing in this world is the intolerance that leads to so much violence. I have had to put it on the page to draw our attention to it so we would be disgusted by it.”

When Lark reaches the Irish beach, he is the only one still living. His mother’s parting words to him was a plea to find Glendalough, a “thin place” believed to have special protection due to its close proximity to heaven.

Although he often longs to slip into depression and despair and give up his quest, his heart so broken from the great love he lost, Lark instead continues forward so that those he has survived can live on in his memory.

Lark Ascending is a love story, as much about romantic love as friendship. It’s a story of loyalty and of humanity clinging to survival when it has deteriorated to betrayal and treachery. It’s the Fellowship of the Ring meets Parable of the Sower: full of dystopia, suspense, and drama. On center stage is the courage to trust again when all former bonds have been severed.

Adrenaline flows through every page as Lark evades a mysterious pursuer in his trek through the Irish wilderness – which is marred by war and a lurking enemy – on his journey to fulfill his mother’s dying wish. Along the way, he is befriended by two very different partners who impact his journey in profound ways.

He first meets a beagle named Seamus (pronounced “Shame-us”), whose existence is a phenomenon in itself: dogs were long thought extinct after being rounded up a decade or more prior due to their burden on the dwindling food supply. Although the story is told largely by Lark, a chunk of the narrative is written from Seamus’ point of view. This is an interesting choice by the author that provides a deeper understanding of why Ireland (and the world) came to be as it is, even though it was a bit distracting at times and disappeared as quickly as it was introduced.

Seamus was more than just a companion for Lark. The dog’s role is also a symbol of the devastation Lark has experienced and an inspiration for the new life Lark is trying to create. “Dogs had always been taken away from their mothers and siblings early on and had to create their own families,” Lark says. “Whoever was good to them became their family.”

Seamus opened the door for Lark to live again.

“They say it is foolish to put human qualities to a dog, but I couldn’t help feeling like he was loving me, and I was reminded of how long it had been since anyone had touched me in a caring way.”

It’s because of Seamus that Lark meets Helen, a rogue woman with a shady past who seems to be an ally. That alliance is called into question when Lark and Helen meet a second woman as she is eyeing the mangled corpse of her father, a man who held her on a leash and dragged her about the forest. The chained woman seeds doubt in Lark about who Helen really is, and Lark isn’t sure who to believe. The wrong assumption would prevent him from reaching his destination and cost him his life. Lark is left questioning whether Helen will take him to Glendalough as promised, or if she will sell him to the enemy, as the other woman has claimed.

House drops readers directly into this world, with Lark narrating to a reader who already knows the events surrounding his journey, since they happened so long ago – the circumstances of Ireland’s condition, the enemies that prowl the lands and the events that have transpired since. This approach creates an air of mystery about the enemies that pursue Lark and the dystopia in which he finds himself entrenched, while avoiding otherwise distracting details.

Much of what readers learn is revealed through dialogue, creating an engaging and insightful read that broadened the characterization of Lark and his comrades. House uses light, clear brush strokes to create the imagery rather than harsh, boring lines of text explaining why, how, and what things are. The prose is often poetic, bringing the characters and scenery to life, using sounds and smells to create the scenery as much as physical descriptions.

Reading Lark Ascending achieved more than the escape from everyday life that a typical novel can provide. As wars and fundamentalist principles take hold in our physical world, I find dystopian works, usually my go-to, having less of an allure. Amid the hardship, loss and devastation of Lark’s world were encouraging lessons in how to endure great hardship without losing an internal sense of self, love, and purpose. It was both inspiring and enjoyable.

Lark Ascending
By Silas House
Algonquin Books
Published September 27, 2022