Title: Under the Mercy Trees
Author: Heather Newton
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from Library Thing Early Reviewers
First line: That last night at Rendezvous Falls, the Ford Sunliner seemed to drive itself, the engine so powerful it felt as if some force were pulling them up the mountain.
After Leon Owenby disappears without a trace, his younger brother Martin comes home to North Carolina to be with the rest of his siblings. He left home for New York years ago to go to college and become a writer, and doesn’t quite fit into his family’s rural existence any longer. As the family tries to understand what happened to Leon, they must also deal with long-buried family secrets.
Heather Newton is a wonderful writer, who was able to write from the perspective of four very different characters and give them each their own voice. She deftly depicts life in the 1980s in a small mountain town in North Carolina, giving the book a vividly drawn setting. She crafts each character completely with a living, breathing authenticity.
After reading my glowing praise for Ms. Newton’s writing ability, I’m sure you’re wondering why I only rated this book three stars.
Out of the four characters whose points of view make up this story, I only found myself liking one of them. I wasn’t emotionally connected to any of the characters except Ivy, the eccentric older sister who sees dead people and is written off as crazy by the rest of the family. I understand that the Owenby siblings were a product of the rotten environment they grew up in, and yet I couldn’t find any empathy for the rest of them. And so I was left with this dilemma: how do you invest emotionally in a story whose central characters you don’t like or relate to?
I’ve said this before: when reading gritty, realistic, literary fiction, I need hope. I don’t need fairy tale, happily ever after endings, but I do need to see a light for the characters. Under the Mercy Trees gives you a family of people who have settled for the lot life has dealt them, who don’t care or try to make things any better for themselves. When I closed the book, I was depressed, knowing that this multi-generational family – including the new baby born into it – would continue to perpetuate the dysfunction.
But, like I said in that second paragraph: Heather Newton can write. For that reason, I will definitely pick up the next book she pens.