By Keija Parssinen
Harper (March 10, 2015)
Reviewed by Mary Vensel White
The plot of Keija Parssinen’s new novel, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, bears some striking resemblances to a release from last summer, The Fever by Megan Abbott. Both books are set in a smallish town and focus on a coterie of teenage girls afflicted, one by one, with a mysterious illness. In both towns, there is the question of an environmental pollutant and the intense reactions of the town’s inhabitants. Both novels attempt to submerge the reader into the stew of the anxiety, fear and suspicion engendered by the girls’ condition; both stories offer a view into the adolescent mindset and its passions. But if The Fever left you detached and cold as it did me, don’t let that keep you from The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. Parssinen’s novel succeeds on every level and kept me enthralled in every way Abbott’s did not.
Mercy Louis is the star basketball player on her high school team. Rebuilding her confidence after a terrible championship game, she also has the upcoming apocalypse to consider. Her evangelical grandmother, who has raised Mercy since her drug-addicted mother left, has predicted the end of the world and she instructs Mercy how to be among the chosen. Mercy, for her part, is a believer, and yet, her day-to-day world is focused on normal teenage preoccupations: her best friend Annie, the basketball team, her developing crush on a guitar-playing smooth-talker. The sexual tensions between the characters are encompassing and confused, as those among burgeoning sexual beings are, and Parssinen presents the crosshatch of their feelings and affections. Mercy has remained “pure” yet loves Annie with an intensity bordering on sexual; the wallflower Illa worships Mercy, and Annie escapes her unhappy home life through promiscuity, all the while encouraging Mercy’s attachment.
The story is framed by two local events, past and present. The town is still recovering from the refinery blast that crippled Illa’s mother, and still enduring the air pollution produced by the town’s main business. Also, as the novel begins, the corpse of a premature infant is found in the garbage at a convenience store. The police investigate and soon, the focus turns to the students at Mercy’s school. Townspeople are enraged and the girls, all girls, become suspect. Always throughout the book, there is the myriad of expectations presented to females, the struggle to be all of the things their gender requires.
Thematically, the novel gives so much to mull over but it’s also a page-turning suspenseful tale with a Gothic flavor. I appreciated the patience Parssinen displayed, the nuances she laid out and especially, the areas she intentionally left murky. Race is a factor, but never over-played. The mystery of Mercy’s mother unfolds slowly and deliberately. Mercy’s sexual awakening is fraught with doubt and confused allegiances. In everything, there is a bit of mystery.
Parssinen’s town of Port Sabine is a vivid, emotive place, the sights and smells of nature pressing in from all sides. She captures the nuances of small town life eerily and perfectly. The narrative moves back and forth from Mercy’s perspective to Illa’s, and the pairing of these characters works well. Both are missing mothers: Mercy’s left town and Illa’s is a shell of her former self after her accident. In another time, the mothers were the best of friends, and as their story comes to light, Mercy and Illa find a lost part of themselves. Each character’s world is a live and desperate place. Outside, the town is becoming unhinged and when the tension builds to a shocking act of brutality, the dye is cast for both girls to make big changes.
A riveting and touching read, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is a novel about growing up, about modern expectations for our girls, about fear and the brutality that often goes with it, about love, about talent, about finding a truth that works for you. And it’s a story that won’t soon leave your consciousness.
MARY VENSEL WHITE is an author and contributing editor of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.