New York: Harper
Hardcover, 978-0-06-231909-8; also available in ebook
320 pages, $25.99
March 10, 2015
Port Sabine is a small, derelict refinery town on the Gulf Coast of East Texas, economically depressed and environmentally despoiled, beset by class divisions, small minds, and smaller hearts. Port Sabine’s claims to fame are a refinery explosion and the lone bright spot—the girls’ high-school basketball team and its star, Mercy Louis. Mercy lives on the bayou’s edge with her grandmother, a harsh, unforgiving woman, a member of a “Holy Roller” church who has visions and spouts prophecy of the imminent Rapture. “She’s prophesying again.…Vivid and gut-socking, they come on every few weeks now.... Like turkey vultures aswarm around the dying, she says of the visions. This world is in its death throes.” When the body of an infant is found in a dumpster and people fall ill mysteriously, the weight of suspicion and the judgment of fire-and-brimstone religion land heavily on the girls of Port Sabine.
Keija Parssinen has conjured a smartly plotted, fast-paced Gothic brew of superstition, fear, jealousy, conspiracy, politics, money, sex, love, and misogyny. Mercy is an innocent and tries to be worthy but the bar is too high. “I should be glad to go to heaven, but all I can think about is that December 31 falls in the middle of basketball season.…There’s too much I haven’t had the chance to do, not just winning State, but graduating, going to college, kissing a boy, falling in love.”
Parssinen has a gift for describing the primordial landscape. “[T]he grass sweats dewy beads, the sun bakes the mud banks of the bayou to cracking…cypress trees weep through their branches. Tangles of velvety morning glories grow inky blue and secretive in the thicket at the roadside, bursts of Mexican hat cascading…like spilled paint. On the air, the smell of ripening things.”
She also has an aptitude for the charming image. As Mercy describes it, “I vacuum up her words from where they hang unclaimed in the air; I perch them in the shadowed space where I keep her other confessions, a line of grackles on a bare branch by my heart.” And the astute analogy: “Students buzz down the hallways, atoms of anxiety fusing with one another to form dangerous compounds.”
There is wry humor here, as well. “The truth is like fish. When people ask for it, they usually don’t want it eyes and all.” And this: “In a small town, it’s hard to tell fact from fiction, the apocryphal making the rounds alongside the God’s honest until they’re indistinguishable and both cited like gospel.”
The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is a modern fairy tale that harks back to the Brothers Grimm. It reminds me of a counterintuitive but brilliant blend of Cynthia Bond’s Ruby and Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, a distinctive creation. This story ends with beginnings, the pitch-perfect conclusion testing the adage that the truth will set you free. “Unravel” has two definitions: 1) undo and 2) investigate and solve or explain. Parssinen’s novel does both.
Keija Parssinen was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there for twelve years before her family moved to Austin. She attended Princeton University, where she studied English literature and received a certificate from the Program for the Study of Women and Gender. She then earned her MFA at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote fellow, a Teaching and Writing fellow, and the student editor for the Iowa Short Fiction contest.
After finishing the program, she won a Michener-Copernicus award for her debut novel, The Ruins of Us (Harper Perennial, 2012), which was published in the US, UK, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Italy, and around the Middle East. The novel was long-listed for the 2012 Chautauqua Prize. In 2014, Parssinen was a visiting professor of fiction writing at Louisiana State University. Her work has appeared in the Lonely Planet travel-writing anthologies, Five Chapters, the New Delta Review, Salon, Marie Claire, and elsewhere.