Friday, August 15, 2014

David Adams Richards, Mercy Among the Children

Powerful, bleak, inevitable: this novel's a downbound train, man. I've read and taught darker novels recently, but those are apocalyptic ones, and the entirely non-apocalyptic Mercy Among the Children ranks pretty high on the depression-o-meter. On the other hand, it's literary Canadian fiction, so it kind of goes with the territory. Misery piled on misery, though with some lovely prose and memorable images, and I suspect it's the kind of thing that drives Canadian book clubs out of existence. You take yourselves too seriously, and you'll spend whole years reading terrific books that crush your soul. No amount of unoaked Chardonnay can save a book club that spends too much time on this kind of thing.

I'm not much for escapism, but look around. I'm thinking today about the Mount Polley mine spill; protests in Ferguson, Missouri; Gaza, always Gaza; Africa, always Africa. Sometimes you just need to escape, and if you do, then Mercy Among the Children is not your friend.

But of course that's not the point of this remarkable novel, nor of so many other high-end works of art. There are elements of parable and allegory here, moral fable cloaked as ultra-realist social-justice fiction, and we're meant to ponder the meaning of conscience, the possibility of evil, the law of unintended consequences, etc etc, and there's a lot here to reward a careful, committed reader. Some of it you could get from watching Fargo (movie or TV), but Adams Richards writes a hell of a novel: he deserves more readers.

I don't have the strength to write a full review of my own, frankly, but here's a useful comment from Stephanie Merritt's balanced and very thoughtful review in the Guardian:
"Set in the weather-blasted Maritimes, the story is as bleak as the landscape that overshadows it. Lyle Henderson, now in his mid-twenties, relates the story of his childhood in grinding rural poverty with his saint-like parents and albino sister, and his family's long-standing feud with the family of Mathew Pit. The catalogue of tragedies to befall the Hendersons is so relentless, and their suffering so patient and good-hearted, that it begins to make Hardy's later novels look like episodes of Friends…. Adams Richards's characters are compelling, if not entirely convincing, in the simplicity of their allegiances and vendettas, so that it comes as a shock when every now and again a narrative detail reminds us that the novel is set at the end of the twentieth century and not the mid-nineteenth. Glimpses of redemption are held out and then cruelly snatched away, but the just and the unjust suffer in equal measure, and no one, it seems, is exempt."
Or try this suite of student responses, in the comments thread on a Vermont professor's blog. It's a terrific novel, if you're strong enough to be vulnerable enough.