Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Laura McHugh, THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD: Ozark Mountains Murder Mystery

THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD is a debut novel -- but you'll only know that from the outside of the book, where it says so. Inside it, between the covers, this is expert storytelling from a librarian, software developer, mom, and above all, prime novelist. Laura McHugh's emotionally wrenching suspense gives us two memorable women: Lucy Dane, just finishing high school, and her vanished mother, Lila. Each unfolds her experiences from first-person vantage -- and yet in McHugh's hands, this clarity still hides from us the darkness of some souls nearby. Take your cue from short-term high school art teacher Mr. Gerardi, who returned to Chicago without completing a semester of teaching in the town of Henbane. Obsessed with the many references to the devil in local place names, the teacher even focused on the town itself:  "Henbane. Another name for nightshade -- the devil's weed. He's everywhere. He's all around you."

And indeed, the book opens with a death -- the death of Lucy's once best friend Cheri Stoddard, whose body has just been discovered. Lucy knows she wasn't the kind of BFF she should have been to Cheri. By not standing up for her friend, and not somehow preventing her death, Lucy's already failed her own self-standards.

But she's been handed a stacked deck and doesn't yet know it, as her dad never gave her the reak details of her mother's disappearance. Only as the counternarrative from Lila wraps around her daughters does the town's truly hellish characteristic appear: the power allowed to one twisted man who takes what he wants, including the innocence and freedom of whatever is lovely in this place.

And when Lucy's father warns her that there's evil nearby, he does it far too vaguely:
He stumbled around whatever he was trying to say. "Crete'll be looking out for you ... but you need to use your best judgment. You don't know what kind of folks you might run into up there, and ... you just need to mind your business and do your work and stay out of anything that don't concern you. And if anything makes you uncomfortable, let me know. I can give him some reason you gotta quit."

"What're you talking about?" I asked. I could tell he wasn't joking around, but I couldn't imagine what had him worried. "I'll be renting canoes and selling worms. It's not exactly dangerous."
But that's not true. And the danger is not the job itself, or even "stranger danger" -- it's as close as family and neighbors, and Lucy's father's decision to keep the details to himself leaves it up to Lucy to discover them. As did her mother before her.

Creepy, suspenseful, deeply human, and sustained by strands of loyalty, love, and friendship, the summer in front of Lucy is McHugh's many-layered portrait of a place, a community, a time, and the dangerous edge that some people continue to hone between men and beautiful women. In turn, it's Lucy's task to discover what happened to her mother -- and perhaps to save herself from repeating the same tragedy. But how will she know for sure, if nobody will tell her?

She'll find out. And so does the reader. McHugh sets it up so that every added scrap of the past revealed becomes another reason to follow Lucy, to whatever she can salvage for her life.

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