The course of true love never did run smoothly, but in Alissa York's novel Mercy love often strikes its lonely, flawed characters with devastating results. The novel's narrative is divided between the stories of two priests, separated by 50 years, and their respective love affairs in a small Manitoba town, appropriately called Mercy. The novel opens in 1948 when the butcher Thomas Rose prepares to kill a cow. (Some of the tenderest moments in the novel concern Thomas butchering an animal.) Thomas falls in love with the orphan Mathilda, whose body makes him think of the lovely carcasses of does. Meanwhile, Mathilda falls in love with Father August Day, whom she first sees when he weds her to Thomas, and an illicit love affair ensues between the two. The second part of the novel jumps forward five decades to focus on another womanizing priest, named Carl, who visits Mercy with the aim of developing its bog area into a Christian camp. The priest attempts to penetrate the bog to confront Mary, the woman who lives there. An accident forces him to remain in her care while he heals, but the experience helps him regain more than just his sight. Redemption seems possible if not necessarily convincing.
The chapters' titles set the tone by alternating terms that could be found in a butchering manual with Latin religious phrases. York's captivating, poetic prose repeatedly reminds us that her characters are creatures of flesh, with all the frailty that derives from it. For example, Thomas's face is described as "an open rib cage, displaying his ardent heart." The key to the novel can be found in the bog--an untamed wilderness on the outskirts of Mercy that surely symbolizes the town's conscience. --Leah Eichler
Lust and sin grapple with religious piety in this moving, occasionally overwrought novel by Canadian writer York. As August Day's first duty as priest of St. Mary's church in Mercy, Manitoba, in 1948, he marries the kindly but dull town butcher, Thomas Rose, to Mathilda Nickels, the orphaned niece of the church's housekeeper. Immediately overcome by lust for handsome August, virginal Mathilda refuses to consummate her marriage—that is, until she seduces the priest, becomes pregnant with his child and needs to keep Thomas from finding out. York develops this triangular relationship with frequent flashbacks to each protagonist's miserable childhood, alternately focusing on the town drunk, Castor Wylie. The plot can feel schematic, and the grisly denouement of Mathilda and August's sinning is telegraphed early on. But in the novel's second half, set in 2003, readers will find some gripping characters—an autistic child, a woman who lives in a bog, another sinful man of the cloth—that propel the story into new, genuinely surprising territory. York's unflinching but tender eye for the natural world results in graceful ballets of description: butchering techniques have seldom been described in such precise, loving detail, and the flora and fauna of the bog are invested with vibrant individuality. York is a gifted writer whose next novel will no doubt be a more consistent work of emotional power.
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