Apparently the way to get me to buy a book is to have an author reading in a local independent bookstore. The last four books I bought were all during such events: one with Elizabeth Gilbert that I wrote about here, one with Louisa Shafia for her gorgeous cookbook, Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life (and then I got to go have dinner with her–that she cooked!), another one I’m going to write about soon (no spoilers here) and today’s topic: Heather Newton.
Heather is a local author and attorney. She works as a lawyer four days a week and on Friday she faithfully holes herself up to do nothing but write. She’s also a wife and a mom and, from all accounts, a genuinely nice human being. First, can I just say–wow. As a mom who is trying to make a living for myself while writing a couple of books and hopefully also succeeding in the nice-human-being arena, I’m impressed. Had she managed a sweet little self-published novel for regional audiences, that would still be quite the accomplishment. Instead, she’s written a complex and nuanced first novel full of intrigue and intimacy, loss and longing. Published by Random House, the book is already collecting humming reviews.
So let me add mine.
Under the Mercy Trees weaves together stories of the Owenby family through the unique voices of four characters. Set in the mid-1980s in rural western North Carolina, we gradually come to know several generations of family members through the memories and perceptions of the varied narrators. The story begins when Leon Owenby, a loner who lives in the old family homestead, goes missing. Martin, the youngest brother and the only member of the family to leave the county, reluctantly comes down from New York City, where the folks back home imagine him leading a glamorous life. In fact, Martin’s life is anything but. He is drunk much of the time and broke all of it. Martin’s voice provides a pivotal point of view for remembering the difficult and impoverished life he left behind, only to find a different kind of poverty and shame in his late middle age.
The other narrators are Martin’s high school girlfriend, Liza, his ghost-haunted sister Ivy, and Bertie, the wife of his brother James. While Newton alternates between voices, she also takes us back and forth between past and present, seamlessly crossing the distance between the 1950s childhoods of the narrators and their lives and concerns in 1986. The main characters’ grown children play out another generation’s angers and insecurities while the mystery of Leon’s disappearance blows like a ghost through every interaction.
Martin remains lovable in large part because of the other characters’ care for him. Liza and their childhood friend Hodge and Martin’s siblings all maintain a gentle respect for him, even as he tries to disguise his dilapidated life. Each main character carries a particular yearning that Newton slowly unfolds for us over the course of the book, painting a canvas of old longings that shape lives for decades.
I especially loved Ivy, the only narrator who speaks in the 1st person. At the reading, Newton shared with us that she felt Ivy had to speak in first person for the reader to be able to see and understand the ghosts as Ivy sees and understands them. Each narrator has suffered heart-breaking loss, but none more than Ivy. Yet she, who lives amidst the twin worlds of the living and the dead, walks with more equanimity through her hard-edged world than any of the others.
While I would never categorize Under the Mercy Trees as a mystery, the unraveling of Leon’s disappearance provides the mirror in which all the characters see themselves. There is mercy in the book, but no heaven-rending redemption. Rather than tie any neat packages to end this memorable tale, Newton offers the mercy of unspoken forgiveness and the quiet dissolution of guilt mixed with the continued reality of deep hidden hurt. She offers us a family in all of its unresolved love and hate, still suffering, still hoping, still together.