Mercy, Reviewed in the Vancouver Sun
February 1, 2003
By Robert Wiersema
THE QUALITY OF MERCY: Alissa York’s first novel is a compulsively readable triumph of storytelling
Winnipeg writer Alissa York has been, for the past several years, one of Canada’s most promising young writers. Her 1999 short story collection Any Given Power (which included “The Back of the Bear’s Mouth,” winner of the Journey Prize, and “Stitches,” winner of the Bronwen Wallace Award) was an overlooked gem, a powerful, exciting collection beloved by critics (and by those readers fortunate enough to discover it), which nonetheless escaped widespread public attention. With Mercy, her debut novel, York is likely to receive the attention and the readership she so richly deserves.
When August Day, a young priest fresh from the seminary, is assigned to St. Mary Immaculate in Mercy, Man., in the spring of 1948, he is expecting to assist the aging parish priest, Father Rock. Before his arrival, however, Father Rock dies, leaving young Father Day with a parish of his own. His first duty, the day after his arrival, is the wedding of the town butcher Thomas Rose to Mathilda, the radiant teenaged niece of the church’s cleaning woman.
Father Day and Mathilda find themselves immediately and violently attracted to one another, although both try to deny it to themselves. Mathilda takes over the cleaning of the church from her aunt, and their passion grows in their respective isolations until it explodes in a scene so fleeting it might not have even happened, save for the child Mathilda is soon carrying.
That child, a girl, becomes the still centre around which, it becomes clear, all of the other events revolve. Fifty-five years later, when Reverend Carl Mann arrives in Mercy with a plan to develop the bogs and wilderness outside of town, it is the daughter of Mathilda and Father Day who guides him through his dark night of the soul, who speaks to him in the voice of the wilderness, of nature itself.
Mercy is neither a straightforward nor a simple novel. It defies both basic summary and every expectation a reader may bring to it, although it is neither gimmicky nor self-conscious. Rather, the events unfold with the often startling inevitability of human action and failing; everything that occurs is based in the vivid and realistically drawn characters and their interactions. Every action, from a spontaneous exposure in a confessional to the innocent release of Father Rock’s stray dogs, has both a motive and an effect, repercussions that echo through the story. The outcome of the narrative strands cannot be predicted, yet the conclusion feels fitting, rather than arbitrary. York is comfortable with mystery, with allowing events to stand on their own without explanation, with bringing events to their conclusion without a sense of forced closure.
She leaves us feeling that we could drive into Mercy tomorrow and find her characters populating its streets, still reckoning, in some way or another, with the legacy of Mathilda and Father Day. Mercy is a novel of haunting contrasts and juxtapositions. The growing passion between Mathilda and Father Day, for example, is juxtaposed against scenes of Rose going about his work, clinical and precise, the heating blood of romance, tinged with poetry and spirituality, contrasted with the spilled blood of the abattoir, the brute physicality of death.
Steeped in both Christianity and more pagan ideologies, in both the town and the bog, the novel’s imagery is startlingly original, often surprising, yet always appropriate. A glass house in the depths of the bog, a band of feral dogs, a body perfectly preserved in the acid waters of the bog, a human femur picked clean of flesh – Mercy is an impressionistic novel, building from tiny, finely wrought details to a complex system of references and resonances, images and events gaining import and weight by the reader’s immersion in it.
Mercy is also compulsively readable, a triumph of York’s storytelling prowess. It would be an impressive novel from an established author; from a debut novelist, it is a small miracle, graceful and unflinching, violent and beautiful, heartfelt and haunting.
Mercy will likely draw comparisons to two other debut novels of recent years. While it has much in common with Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees and Gail Anderson-Dargatz’ The Cure For Death By Lightning – a rural setting, a backdrop of both religion and violence, a vivid and compelling cast of characters – Mercy is by far the strongest of the three novels, riskier, more challenging and, ultimately, more rewarding.