A modern Southern gothic with a feminist edge and the tense pacing of a thriller.
Port Sabine, Texas: an economically depressed oil refinery town on the Gulf, heavy with gossip and religious superstition. With a fatal explosion at the refinery still lingering in the residents’ collective memory, they turn their focus to Mercy Louis, the star of the high school girls basketball team. Mercy knows how good she is, and in her private way, basketball is her religion, but she must hide this from her caretaker grandmother, Evelia, a fierce evangelical. Evelia’s vision for, and of, her granddaughter is narrow; Mercy knows she has to be twice as pious as any other girl to make up for her absentee, crack-addict mother and be saved with her grandmother in the approaching rapture. In another corner of town, Illa Stark chafes in the ongoing role of nurse to her mother, a badly burned victim of the refinery explosion who has since mostly given up on life. Illa is more at peace as the manager of the girls basketball team, and she watches Mercy from afar with a hopeful tenderness. Meanwhile, the discovery of a fetus in a town dumpster has emotions in Port Sabine running hot and especially emphasizes the disempowerment of the town’s young women. “Around here, you’d think being a girl was the fucking crime,” a minor character says. It’s interesting to watch these moments of heightened awareness play up against the gothic structure. Mercy is every bit the innocent, blindly reliant on her grandmother and her basketball coach as pressures pile up on her, summer wears on and her relationships shift in distressing ways. There is a slight disconnect between Parssinen’s piercing narrative style and Mercy’s willful ignorance, but Illa’s ability to see the bigger pictures is, in story and style, a balancing grace.
Beautiful and awful, enraging and sad, atmospheric and page-turning: an accomplished novel.