Elizabeth H. Winthrop- The Mercy Seat/ Michelle Sacks- You Were Made For This/ Elena Varvello- Can You Hear Me?

As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit.

In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband…

Billed as having a kaleidoscopic narrative, The Mercy Seat, Winthrop’s tale of racial and social division is a measured and emotive story from beginning to end. As the hours tick by we bear witness to a young man’s progression to the electric chair, after a false accusation of rape, and Winthrop uses a myriad of voices throughout the book, changing the reader’s perception of events along the way. Weighing in with some big, meaty issues revolving around crime and punishment, justice and injustice, and condemnation and mercy, there is no denying the emotional heft of the book, and the raw human emotion that Winthrop pours into the novel. Cleverly, she integrates the shadow of WW2, and the bloodbath events of war in the Pacific, as a juxtaposition to the incredibly moving faltering journey of the condemned man’s father. The exposition of the loss of a mother of her son to war, and the loss of a son to a father through America’s racial war is beautifully rendered, and for me these two narratives were the real emotional lynchpin of the narrative.

With nine characters voices echoing throughout the book, I did feel there was a slight weakness to the clear identification of them, and some blurriness to their own morality or perception of the events unfolding. Interestingly, I came away from the book feeling that I had not read a contiguous tale, but more that these alternating chapters had taken the shape of a short story collection in my mind, as some chapters seemed less related, and a little less relevant to the whole. So I had a slight issue with the structure, preferring to absorb these as connecting stories, moving towards the same end. I was left a little unsettled by the ending too, as the clarion call of mercy was dealt with in a strangely weak denouement, that rather left the reader hanging in the balance at the end. Consequently, although I admired greatly some aspects of the novel in terms of the rendition of time and place, and the strong emotional resonance of some of the characters’ voices, I felt that Winthrop had maybe cast the net a little too wide, and so some sections of the book felt  a little disjointed, and were less satisfactory than others. Would still recommend though despite, in my own opinion, some minor flaws.

(With thanks to Sceptre for the ARC)

Doting wife, devoted husband, cherished child. Merry, Sam and Conor are the perfect family in the perfect place. Merry adores baking, gardening, and caring for her infant son, while Sam pursues a new career in film. In their idyllic house in the Swedish woods, they can hardly believe how lucky they are. What perfect new lives they’ve built for themselves, away from New York and the events that overshadowed their happiness there. Then Merry’s closest friend Frank comes to stay. All their lives, the two women have been more like sisters than best friends. And that’s why Frank sees things that others might miss. Treacherous things that unfold behind closed doors. But soon it’s clear that everyone inside the house has something to hide. And as the truth begins to show through the cracks, Merry, Frank, and Sam grow all the more desperate to keep their picture-perfect lives intact...

With the creeping unease of recent domestic noir thrillers like Gone Girl, but tinged with the emotional darkness of the brilliant Monster Love by Carol Topolski, I rather enjoyed this twisted tale of marital bliss gone sour, and the more than dysfunctional relationship that we suddenly start to observe.

I found the first half of this book in particular, a fine example of pot-boiling suspense, as one couple’s new life in rural Sweden begins to show cracks and fissures, that Sacks exposes in a beautifully controlled fashion. The sudden sinister shocks that she surprises the reader with, and which may unsettle those of a more nervous disposition, become darker and darker as the plot progresses. Structured in alternating chapters, both Merry and Sam begin to have aspects of their characters exposed which become just a little more distasteful and disturbing in their words and deeds, but Sacks unashamedly brings the darkest compulsions of Merry front and centre, in her fraught relationship with her child. I think Sacks walks a very thin line here between voyeurism and objectivism with the issue of abuse she raises, and unlike the aforementioned Monster Love , I felt a certain disconnectedness with the intent of choosing this narrative, and the response it seeks to spark in the reader.

I think it appealed to me at first, that these are two of the most dislikeable and smug characters that I have encountered for some time, and although initially finding myself unable to look away from their solipsism, self absorption and fake morality, I did begin to grow weary of their naval gazing self justification for their eminently disturbing behaviour. With the advent of the arrival of Merry’s friend Frank, further scope was given to the author to explore the formative years of this trinity of more than a little screwed up protagonists, and give the reader time to see the strange dynamic between them begin to evolve. However, with this introduction of a new character, I felt the plot begin to crawl to a more sedentary drawn out pace, sparking a feeling of frustrated boredom, and just a muted eyebrow raise at some of the revelations. I felt that the story seemed to start circling itself only inching the narrative forward, after the assured pace and reveals of the first half of the book, and a strange propensity for overwritten truisms began to become increasingly more evident towards the end of the book, as opposed to the clarity of statement and intent from the characters at the beginning. Definitely a book of two halves for this reader.

(With thanks to HQ HarperCollins for the ARC)

1978.
Ponte, a small community in Northern Italy. An unbearably hot summer like many others.
Elia Furenti is sixteen, living an unremarkable life of moderate unhappiness, until the day the beautiful, damaged Anna returns to Ponte and firmly propels Elia to the edge of adulthood.
But then everything starts to unravel.
Elia’s father, Ettore, is let go from his job and loses himself in the darkest corners of his mind.
A young boy is murdered. And a girl climbs into a van and vanishes in the deep, dark woods…

I experienced a mild sense of excitement that I would have to talk about this book for a whole month wearing my bookseller hat, so I started reading with a heightened sense of anticipation. Now I love a translated slow-burner as much as the next person, but for some reason or other this one just didn’t hit the spot. Unlike undoubtedly hundreds of others, I was unerringly frustrated by this obvious hybrid of autobiography and fiction, at odds with my usual enjoyment for the genre- for example Karl Ove Knausgard or Edward St Aubyn. I felt for the most part I was just an incidental passenger to the author’s cathartic writing exercise, which revealed itself quickly to be what I perceived to be an exploration of her own father’s mental disturbance. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but I felt it was to the detriment of what could have been an infinitely more engaging experience for the reader.

Sometimes as a bookseller, I recommend books to people with the words, “Well, nothing really happens, but things don’t happen in a beautifully written way”, and this is what I was longing for in this book. There was a real feeling of deferred happenings in this book, and at times a notable compulsion by the author to pull back from events that could have given some substance and interest to the whole affair. Yes there’s a tangible thread of violence running through the book, and a not altogether convincing seduction, but the weirdly overemotional tone that reveals itself in the words and deeds of some characters, does begin to feel like some kind of therapy group literature, and a real lost the feel of dramatic tension to what cites itself as a thriller. As I said, I was looking forward to this one immensely, but feel I must go elsewhere for my Italian fiction fix, where nothing can happen, as long as it doesn’t not happen beautifully.

(I bought this copy)

 

 

 

 

Blog Tour- Thomas Mullen- Darktown

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Atlanta, 1948. In this city, all crime is black and white.

On one side of the tracks are the rich, white neighbourhoods; on the other, Darktown, the African-American area guarded by the city’s first black police force of only eight men. These cops are kept near-powerless by the authorities: they can’t arrest white suspects; they can’t drive a squad car; they must operate out of a dingy basement. When a poor black woman is killed in Darktown having been last seen in a car with a rich white man, no one seems to care except for Boggs and Smith, two black cops from vastly different backgrounds. Pressured from all sides, they will risk their jobs, the trust of their community and even their own lives to investigate her death. Their efforts bring them up against a brutal old-school cop, Dunlow, who has long run Darktown as his own turf – but Dunlow’s idealistic young partner, Rakestraw, is a young progressive who may be willing to make allies across colour lines . . .

For many years I’ve been recommending Thomas Mullen’s The Many Deaths of The Firefly Brothers as a great American novel set during the Depression era, with its compelling period detail and a couple of superb protagonists in the guise of notorious bank robbers Jason and Whit Fireson. On the strength of this, I was keen as mustard to read Mullen’s Darktown, set in the racially charged era of 1940’s Atlanta…

I will quite honestly say that I was held in Darktown’s thrall from start to finish, and felt genuinely engaged with the essence of the period, Mullen’s bold and engaging characterisation, and the compelling plotline which gravitated between claustrophobic tension and heartfelt emotion throughout. Being so firmly rooted within the conflict and racial tension of this period, the language and terms used completely reflect the era, and with our modern day sensibilities there is a slight uneasiness at the language used. However, being so much of its time, and as a testament to the weight of dignity he throws behind his maligned black characters, and the white protagonists, some sympathetic, some hostile, the rhythm, vernacular and cadence of the language used plays an essential role in the book. The depth of Mullen’s historical research shines through from the references to the inherently unjust limitations placed upon black citizens not only in their segregation from whites, but also the lack of legal redress available to them. This is mirrored in the very strict restrictions placed upon his black police officers, Boggs and Smith, as to how they conduct their police business, and the added layer of scrutiny and danger that they have to operate within. Likewise, the impunity that white police officers such as Dunlow operate under is sharply at odds with the black officer’s experience, and gives the crooked Dunlow a very long leash from which to pursue his corrupt ways.  Mullen traverses a significant amount of individual black and white experience across different realms of society throughout the book, from a lowly farmer to the higher echelons of political power, and with the distinctive backdrop of the racially and socially divided Atlanta as his backdrop, the depth and realism of his chosen period is perfectly integrated throughout.

The characterisation throughout the book is never less than perfect, with all of the main protagonists, as well as lesser characters having sharply drawn edges, and more importantly, being absolutely believable in their depiction, Consequently, such is the level of emotional engagement with them as a reader, you are completely drawn into their individual stories of bravery, certitude, honour or corruption throughout. Mullen depicts beautifully their moments of doubt, the battle to retain their moral centre when pushed to the limit by injustice and racism, or the depths of depravity that wearing a police badge or holding a position of power can reveal in those that society has deigned to be above all others. The moral integrity of both black officer, Boggs, and white officer Rakestraw, operating from both sides of the racial divide is explored throughout. It was extremely gratifying to see that although this is a book firmly rooted in the differences between black and white experience both figuratively and racially that Mullen avoids plummeting his characters into overly moralistic tropes. Instead he leaves area of grey where we witness as readers bad people doing bad things, and good people being driven to bad actions navigating their way through the tinderbox flashpoints that racial division stirs up, and can then draw our own conclusions on the veracity of their actions.

This is an intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally compelling read, peopled by a sublime cast of characters and a balanced and realistic portrayal of weighty issues, firmly located in the fascinating and tumultuous period of post war America. Cut through with moments of raw emotion, thought-provoking social observation, and never less than totally engrossing, Darktown is something really quite special indeed, and at times with its exploration of racial divide in America, made this reader ponder how far American society has really progressed when looking at these issues with a contemporary eye. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to  Little Brown for the ARC)

 

Catch up with or continue to follow the blog tour at these excellent sites:

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