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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Sense of Place, Part 3. THE SHAPE OF MERCY by Susan Meissner

Knowing that everyone is busy with Thanksgiving plans, I'm posting this a bit early in keeping with the discussion about sense of place. Here we go.

I’ve been a fan of Susan Meissner’s fiction for some time. I met her at the ACFW conference in 2007 when I had an author critique session with her. She’s wise and smart, very focused both in her teaching and her writing, and a joy to visit with. I’m nervous about commenting on her latest book because she is, in my opinion, one of the finest writers today. And I’m certainly not qualified to speak about the deeper truths her fiction imparts.

Therefore, I’m going to stick with the plan, and tell you what I love about the sense of place in Susan’s latest book, THE SHAPE OF MERCY.

As I hinted at in my last post of this series, the settings are on opposite shores of America—California for the main character, college student Lauren Durough, and a village near Salem, Massachusetts for Mercy Hayworth, a young woman convicted in the Salem witch trials.

Two plots intertwine more than 300 years apart. I couldn’t imagine how Susan would accomplish this feat without having a character travel back in time. She did it, though, and both Lauren’s world and Mercy’s pulsed with urgency. I slipped easily from one world to the next because of Susan’s meticulous writing.

What worked for me and kept me turning the pages:
  • The contrast of Lauren’s privileged modern day existence and that of Mercy’s meager colonial days. Mercy’s story unfolds from the pages of her diary, which is described as “the color of toast in some places and in others, the color of wet ashes. The ink . . . was so faint it looked as if I could blow it away if I leaned over it and merely exhaled.” The pages are described as whispers, too delicate to bear the weight of my (Lauren’s) fingers. In one short paragraph, the reader knows that whatever is found in this diary is hallowed. You can’t help but long to know what those words are and what Mercy’s story is.
  • Mercy’s words. Her plain, everyday language with specific details of life in the Village, her dying father, and the increasing hysteria about witches in their midst, pull you in by their simplicity. I felt as if I were there as a first-hand witness. Mercy’s words are set off by italics to signal the reader that you are once again in Mercy’s world. Details are minimal, but the tension grows with each entry as you fear what is coming.
  • Lauren transcribes the diary in the library of Abigail, her employer – a daunting woman who lives a life of solitude in a massive Tudor home on the west coast. Lauren’s first visit to the library gives a clear picture not only of the room, but also what her relationship with the older woman will be like. The shelves are lined with books, but others are stacked throughout the library. In Susan’s words, “The rest were loose, unfettered, as if poised to attack. . . towers of pages stacked like scaffolding . . . I minded my ankles as if the books closest to me might nip at my feet.” This visual planted me firmly in Lauren’s world as she did her work.
  • Contrasting the two worlds physically is only part of what I liked about this book. As Mercy finds herself accused in the late 1600s, Lauren examines her own life, and finds her twenty-first century values shaken. Her own journey unfolds with that of Mercy, and she finds in Abigail, not only a job opportunity, but an avenue of change that will affect both their lives.

The Shape of Mercy satisfies in so many ways – the rich writing, the storytelling, and giving pause for reflection. The very cool thing that Susan has done is set up a blog so that the characters live beyond the life of the book. Ever wondered what happened after the last page? You can find out here. You can read more about Susan Meissner here or order the book here.

For the next two weeks, we’ll be traveling across the Atlantic and looking at two books I think you’ll find fascinating. Hope you’ll join me in the journey.

Now, it’s your turn. What are you reading that has a setting holding you hostage? Please, do tell.


Lindsey said...

I finished this a week or so ago and LOVED it! :-) It affected me the same way it did you - I'm working on my review now and it should be up soon.

I'm thinking... another amazing series that really "held me hostage" was the Mark of the Lion series by Francine Rivers. It's been a long time since I've read these books and it's still vivid to me. :-)

carla stewart said...

Thanks, Lindsey, for stopping by. I'll be watching for your review to see your take on Susan's book.