Mercy, Reviewed in Quill & Quire

 

December 2002
By Jeffrey Canton

 

In her debut novel, Alissa York drops her readers into small-town Mercy, Manitoba, in the summer of 1948. Like her award-winning short fiction, Mercy is told in a series of spare vignettes that are rattled off like rosary prayers, providing us with a quick entry into the interconnected stories about butcher Thomas Rose on the eve of his marriage, and his sloe-eyed and slender bride-to-be, Mathilda Nickels.

Also introduced are Mathilda’s maiden aunt Vera; town drunk and visionary Castor Wylie living in a shack on the bog at the edge of town; and young Father August Day, the new parish priest and son of a small-town whore, who can’t quite take leave of the sins of the flesh. At the heart of this first section of the novel are the brief and tempestuous skeins of an adulterous love affair that gradually bind Mathilda and Father Day into a painful passion play that ultimately destroys them both.

York then thrusts us 53 years forward as Carl Mann, preacher and philanderer, sweeps into Mercy like his predecessor, causing almost as much havoc. Mann loses his way in the bog where he is attacked by an owl, then rescued by Bog Mary, Castor’s daughter. Meanwhile, his latest flame, Mercy’s Mayor Lavinia Wylie, is restlessly waiting for yet another night of passion with the lusty priest.

Past and present circle round in a series of cartwheels that York stage-manages to create an exquisitely rendered novel that is almost painful to read. Chapter headings highlight the various narrative threads, past and present. These headings include snippets of prayers in English and Latin, the names of the Virgin Mary, butchering terminology, the animals and birds who inhabit the boglands, and, most fittingly in a novel where the sins of the flesh play such a striking part, the parts of the human body.

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