In most contexts, poor, shy Mercy Louis, who lives with her hyper-religious grandmother on the outskirts of town, would be the class outcast. But Mercy is the basketball star of Port Sabine, Texas, and after a deadly explosion at the oil refinery that employed much of the town, watching Mercy play and watching the team win was what kept them together. But after a fetus is discovered abandoned in a dumpster, the town descends into a modern day witch hunt, one that threatens to unearth the secrets that keep the town running and destroy the lives of any number of its most hopeful young women – Mercy included.
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis takes place at the toxic intersection of misogyny and religion that grips so much of our country and defines the tone of modern political discussion. Author Keija Parssinen’s book focuses heavily on two young women on the fringes of the incident: basketball star Mercy and student team manager Illa. Both characters are exceptionally well-crafted, with strong voices and interesting arcs, which is particularly important during the book’s incident-light opening. This is very much a character-driven southern gothic, more concerned with how its characters react to something awful happening than the actual mechanics of the moment itself. Grim modern Americana at its finest.
The book is a slow burn, particularly in its middle third, when our two point-of-view characters lose themselves in the hazy half-rhythms of summer. It’s a necessary calm to build out some of the relationships that remained static during the school year, but it adheres far too much to a simple three-act structure and makes the same mistake I see a lot of three-act stories make, saving far too much of the event of the book for the climax. Parssinen mostly gets away with it here, because her character work is strong and she has a talent for deeply atmospheric storytelling, but the delicate balance is almost undone at the very end by the constant push of plot.
Keija Parssinen has created a mesmerizing novel, a high school drama with the bones of a thriller and a furiously feminist heart. While I have some minor issues with the book’s end-heavy pacing and quick wrap-up, I simply could not put down The Unraveling of Mercy Louis pretty much from start to finish. Parssinen has a sharp eye for human interaction, for the way young people are often pawns in the political and cultural arenas. This is a subtle, insightful novel, liable to crawl under your skin and stay there for days after you put it down.
Cal Cleary is a librarian and critic in small-town Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @comicalibrarian for updates on where you can find his writing on books, comics, film, and more!
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by HarperCollins Publishers. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.