Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My take on: Under the Mercy Trees

How long can you run from your past? Weeks? Months? Years? How long can you ignore the truth before you are forced to face it? Fear, shame and self-loathing no longer work. There comes a time eventually when you have to face the past. Several characters in Under the Mercy Trees by Heather Newton are running from their pasts. A tragedy within the Owenby family of Solace Fork, N.C., forces everything to the surface.

It's 1986, and Martin, the youngest of the Owenby family, learns that his older brother Leon has disappeared. Martin must now leave the cocoon of his New York City apartment. Martin left Solace Fork, a town so small only five people were in his high school graduating class, decades ago. Instead he is drowning in debt and alcohol. As a gay man, Martin could never truly be himself around his family. In such a small town there is no one like him. His long-suffering childhood friend and semi-girlfriend Liza knows the truth, but only after years of denying it to herself. Once home, only alcohol can quiet the noise coming from the mouths of his relatives. While someone in Martin's shoes would be afraid of family finding out his secret, he seems more afraid of people discovering his drinking. With the exception of his niece Trina and nephew Steven, Martin feels the need to drink in secret. As if that makes it better, the alcohol is merely masking his problems.

Liza has moved on physically, having married and had two daughters, but over the years there were still unanswered questions. Was Martin the one? Why did he reject her advances? Why does he always disappoint her when she needs him the most? In turn, why does she always forgive him?

Martin's sister Eugenia feels like it's her job to be the family's moral compass. She's so judgmental Martin is even afraid to turn down Eugenia's invitation to dinner. I'm sure we all have relatives like that! Brother James is a hard one to figure out at first. He doesn't speak much, including with his wife Bertie, unless prompted. But as the layers of their marriage are peeled away, there is more than meets the eye. A long ago betrayal by Bertie comes to light. How do they move on? Can they move on?

Another sister Ivy is the "crazy" one of the family. Her children, Shane, Steven and Trina went in and out of foster care. She hears voices and speaks to ghosts. When she narrates, Ivy sounds very scatter-brained, especially when talking about simple things like laundry. However, when speaking about her deceased son Shane, Ivy sounds very sane and lucid. The pain and grief is very concrete, and it's easier to express those feelings.

After a while, Leon's disappearance fades to the background. The family drama takes over. Newton does give you glimpses into Leon's character, but I was more invested in the rest of his family. Leon sounded like a big bully, with moments of kindness mixed in. Martin is a sympathetic and tortured soul. You wish he would give up the alcohol, but can understand why he won't. If you don't feel like you belong, you have to do something to mask the pain. In her youth, Liza pined after Martin, you wish she wouldn't but can understand. The one that got away is often hard to resist. A betrayal at the hands of Leon and his friends, turn Ivy into someone else. She seems to like being in a state of manic confusion.

Sometimes it was hard to keep track of the Owenby family tree, so you might want to take notes. This a complex family drama, but one worth discovering.

Rating: Superb

Notes: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more on author Heather Newton, visit:

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