“[T]he best families seem to be made not born.” Simone LeMay says this towards the end of a week spent cohabiting with a nine-year-old who is not her son, and coming to terms with the unexpected appearance of a stranger who purports to be her cousin.

A retired widow, Simone lives on the shore of Lake Superior, on a property just north of Thunder Bay which has been her summer refuge since she was a child. The view of the bay, the stands of evergreens and birches, the light glancing off the rocky bluffs of Sibley Peninsula—these are all described so well that it’s obvious to any reader that this is a part of the world Marion Agnew knows well. Her feeling for place, so integral to an appreciation of the novel, comes through page after page, chapter after chapter.

Born and raised in Missouri, it is here, in what we northerners call “the bush”,  that Simone has put down her roots. She guards this corner of the world, and her privacy, with a fierceness that borders on obsession – a quality that leads Chen, the nine-year-old, to regard her as “weird”.

But she doesn’t lack company. Since the death of her beloved William, five years earlier, Simone has surrounded herself with ghosts: her mother, her husband, and, recently, her long-dead grandfather turn up on a regular basis to challenge, irritate, and (in William’s case) comfort her in her self-imposed isolation. When her local pastor encourages her to take care of Chen for a week, in order to give his mother a break, it’s not only her loss of solitude that worries Simone: what if the boy overhears her talking to her ghosts?

None of this is to suggest that Simone is a little loopy. Far from it. Agnew has drawn a sympathetic, finely-detailed portrait of a woman recovering from loss, who has found a way to live her life without the man she loved. She is brave, intelligent, and practical, and she’s determined to live independently for as long as she possibly can. I admire her for that. But she is also deeply sad, and it is here that Chen—and the so-called cousin, to some extent—come in. By disturbing the peace and quiet of her retreat, they provoke her to reassess her seclusion and allow her to find the strength to grieve and move forward.

Making up the Gods is an exploration of a life lived in its third stage, where change is still possible, learning can occur, and family members can be reclaimed.