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Book review: The Unraveling of Mercy Louis

Keija Parssinen’s rapturous second novel paints an unsettling portrait of victimhood in the contemporary south

Time Out Rating: 4/5 stars

By Keija Parssinen. HarperCollins; $26

In a small refinery town on the Gulf Coast of Texas, Mercy Louis beams hope through the bayou. She’s the star high-school basketball player, a sure shot blessed by the hand of God, living on discipline and stories of the imminent Rapture. But when a dead, premature infant is discovered in a Dumpster and the local girls begin to twitch and groan from an unidentifiable illness, not even Mercy is safe from the ravages of suspicion in Keija Parssinen’s all-consuming second novel.

The author’s skill radiates most luminously when she conjures a particular landscape and culture. In her first novel, that talent lent itself to Saudi Arabia; in her latest, Parssinen transports us to a place of sticky heat and burning cayenne, where selfishness and superstition obscure necessary truths: Only a woman bred on fear would turn to a Dumpster. Mercy and her classmate Illa take turns telling how their town shudders under the weight of infanticide, and in a manner some may call heavy-handed but which actually seems true to the universe’s mad methods, everything unfolds at once. As Mercy struggles with basketball perfection and readying her spirit for the end of days, her absent mother reappears. The mass sickness strikes, and a shadowy refinery explosion, years earlier, looms in the background. As the inflamed town casts sidelong glances of doubt at its girls, Parssinen unveils centuries-old dread of women’s bodies and feminine power.

To herself, Mercy meditates, “Meek and mild, be meek and mild. I have to remind myself that people expect different of girls when they’re not on a basketball court.” But in all its unflinching rawness, Parssinen’s writing shows that the demand for meekness cannot stifle the strength of this girl, a nova of burgeoning womanhood and grace.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Like a deft Texas two-step, Parssinen’s work swings through local terror and youthful awakening.

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