My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Periodically there are books which come into our lives we choose to read not because they are guarantors of entertainment, escapism, pleasure, but because we are aware the writer has something to say, hopefully says it well, and the scent of which lingers in years to come like a primal memory, an underlying truth.
Such is the case with David Adams Richards’ Giller Award winning novel, Mercy Among the Children.
Told through the unreliable narrator of Lyle Henderson, son of the main protagonist and chief underdog in the story, Sydney Henderson, Mercy Among the Children is an epic tale of hypocrisy and greed, of ignorance and poverty not only of economics but of morality. It is not a pleasant read. Nor is it an easy read. But it is gripping and needs to be read much in the way Steinbeck needs to be read, or Harper Lee, or any number of writers who have championed the cause of the disenfranchised and downtrodden.
Set in the Miramichi Valley of New Brunswick, Canada, this labyrinthine tale weaves through betrayals, robberies, murder, toxic waste of the soul and the environment, through generations of people held under the implacable autocracy of the company town. It is relentless in its brutality and sorrow. There are no happy endings in sight. And it resonates with an awful truth which simply cannot be ignored.
My only quibble is in the opening third of the novel the relentless barrage of misdeeds against the Henderson family teeters on the brink of the precious, so that at any moment I fully expected Dickens’ Tiny Tim to make an appearance. Beyond that, there is a court scene which very much put me in mind of Harper Lee’s now legendary court case in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the societal burden Steinbeck presented in The Grapes of Wrath
A recommended read which should be followed immediately by something mindless, hilarious and utterly frivolous, just for balance.