"When men cried the sound had to force its way up through muscle and thick bone. Men didn’t learn how to cry the way women did. It scared them when it happened, the same as if they’d looked down and noticed they were gushing blood."Under the Mercy Trees by Heather Newton begins when Leon Owenby goes missing. His brother, Martin, returns to the family farm in Solace Fork, North Carolina after decades in New York City to help look for his brother. Martin left with dreams of becoming a writer, but finds his life centered around booze and flings with men. Returning to the Owenby farm means encountering the demons of his past, including Liza, the girl who's heart he broke. Under the Mercy Trees alternates in perspective between Martin, Liza, as well as Martin's sister, Ivy who sees ghosts, as well as his sister-in-law Bertie who left his brother James for four days several decades ago a mistake which has never been forgotten. Each of these characters, as well as Ivy's children, Bertie and James' children, and Liza's husband, are developed and unique, and each of them has their own struggles to be overcome.
Although the story develops leisurely at times, Newton's language is so beautiful that I hardly minded, finding myself immersed in the world she had created. The mystery and family secrets the novel contains are revealed throughout the novel, as the past of the characters is a tangled web that Newton slowly unweaves. The imagery in Under the Mercy Trees is incredibly beautiful and powerful, and the reader is easily taken into the Owenby world of a rural Southern town as they fall under Newton's spell. Newton takes on a complex and vast number of issues through the Owenby family, including alcoholism, homosexuality, first love, the meaning of family, infidelity, marriage, suicide and a mother's love for her children. Despite the wide scope of Under the Mercy Trees, each issue is addressed with the maturity and thoughtfulness that makes the novel so successful.
Under the Mercy Trees is a stunning and incredible debut, and I have purposefully kept my description of the novel vague because this is a gem best which is best discovered by the reader as it unfolds. Newton never resorts to gimmick, and I found myself completely surprised and heartbroken by the ending. The characters in the novel are flawed and human, and the lessons they learn can be universally applied. I also think it would make a great novel for a discussion group or book club due to the number of issues the book addresses. Under the Mercy Trees is a complex and powerful debut, but it is not a book to be read in a rush, it is best enjoyed if the reader allows themselves to become fully immersed in the realistic and beautifully described world Newton has created.
Release Date: January 18, 2011
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This review was a part of TLC Book Tours. Click here to read what other tour hosts thought. For the purpose of this review I was provided with a copy of the book which did not require a positive review. The opinions expressed in this post are completely my own.