This not a spoiler-free review!
A Tangled Mercy: A Novel by Joy Jordan-Lake * Format: Kindle * 10/1/2017 *
😸😸😸🔵🔵 (Rated 3/5 happy lap cats)
A Tangled Mercy, by Joy Jordan-Lake, is a good book that’s trying hard to be a great book. It’s a novel that weaves modern day and historical fact with modern day and historical fiction in Charleston, SC to tell stories about slavery, family, betrayal, rescue, sacrifice, heroism, love, and community.
The problem is that the book gets carried away with the number of stories available to tell in an old historic town like Charleston, and forgets to finish everything that it starts. The last part of the book ends up focussing on a new group of people who weren’t in the first part of the book, and we’re left with broad strokes, at best, to resolve the stories of early characters, while later characters are never described in more than broad strokes at all. This ultimately makes the experience unsatisfying.
[Spoilers start here.]
Kate Drayton is a Harvard graduate student working toward a doctorate in history. Her mother has recently died after a long battle with alcoholism and depression, under circumstances that could be accidental or could be suicide. Kate, whose life has revolved around her mother’s issues and secrets, is devastated and unable to create her own life.
She walks out of her Harvard program mid-lecture, deciding to drive to Charleston, her family’s ancestral home, which she and her mother left abruptly after her parents’ divorce when Kate was a child. Kate is determined to continue her mother’s research into an 1822 slave uprising, and, through that, to try to understand her mother’s demons. She hopes that by doing this she can finally let her mother go and learn to live her own life.
When she arrives in Charleston, Kate quickly makes the acquaintance of Daniel and Gabe Russell, a father and his young son who live in a former blacksmith’s shop in the Historic District, and know all of the old legends about Charleston. She also meets Lila Rose Manigault Pinckney, the elderly owner of a diary and other artifacts handed down through her family from the time of the 1822 uprising. These three people will be indispensable to her research, and change her life.
In 1822, Tom Russell is a slave and a blacksmith who is in love with a slave named Dinah, owned by the Pinckneys. Dinah is in danger from the patriarch of the family that owns her, spurring Tom’s need to get them both free. Dinah serves as ladies maid to the family’s teenage daughter, Emily Pinckney, who is good friends with Angelina Grimké, later a real life abolitionist. Emily and Angelina are sympathetic to the couple’s cause, but trying to get them out is dangerous for all of them. Denmark Vesey has an ambitious plan for a slave revolt, but he needs Tom to make the weapons. Tom begins to see this as his only chance to protect his future family.
Though the two time periods are interwoven throughout the book in alternating chapters, the modern day story is given much more attention. The 1822 characters are barely fleshed out enough to make them characters, and their stories are told in a perfunctory manner. We aren’t given any indication of what happened to most of them after the story ends, either the fictional or the real people, other than broad details, or death.
An appendix explaining more about what’s known about the slave revolt and the survivors would have been nice, or, obviously, actually fleshing out the story. It would have been amazing to start each chapter with an excerpt from Emily Pinckney’s journal, until we’d read all of it. Instead, we’re only given a few lines of direct quotes. The journal is a major plot point in the present day storyline, before it’s made unnecessary and dropped for other issues the author found more worthy, so it’s a shame that she didn’t do more with it.
There are many issues with the modern storyline. Kate’s motivation for her trip and research is supposed to be that she needs to understand her mother so that she can move on. But it seems like she decides what she really needs is someone else to build her life around, preferably a man. As soon as she gets close to the male characters, her interest in what she was supposed to be researching wanes, and shifts to align with their interests.
She never puts much effort into her research, and doesn’t seem to understand how she would even go about doing it. She drifts around Charleston, letting serendipity and the men she encounters guide her. In the end, the mysteries are solved, to an extent, by people just deciding to tell her the truth as they know it. These are, of necessity, partial truths. There are still unanswered questions about her mother and the past, but by this time Kate has a new life and a boyfriend. The author has other things to do, so the characters let the rest go.
Kate and her mother come off as weak and self-loathing, nearly feeble-minded, and they are surrounded almost exclusively by men. Rose, the stereotypical Steel Magnolia, is the only other female character we spend much time with in the present day. (There are also only 3 female characters of any import in the past, but at least they have personalities.)
Then there are the structural issues with the book. It takes about 250 out of 434 pages for the story and characters to start to gel at all. Most of the suspense and forward plot motion are derived from letting the reader, and sometimes Kate, think we’re going to get new information, then withholding it, or doling out only a tiny bit at a time.
Kate spends an inordinate amount of time apologizing to her black friends for being white, and thus more privileged, than them, even though she grew up as a girl in poverty with a single, abusive, neglectful parent, while these particular friends had happy, affluent childhoods. But any prejudice that they encounter is taken on by Kate as her fault and her burden, while people go out of their way to extend her suffering by withholding information that she has a right to know.
We finally get to the last 100 pages of the book, and the various threads are coming together. Plot points are being resolved. Things are starting to make sense. But then the entire narrative is blown to bits by the inclusion of the racially motivated real life mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, which left nine people dead. The author states in her author’s note that she had finished writing the book when the tragedy happened. She decided to rewrite the book to include this terrible event.
The quick rewrite shows. At least, let’s say the issues are due to the rewrite. The author sets up threads that are never finished because she and the main character let the new men in her life, and the shooting at the church, take over the story. They both decide that Kate’s own life and her mother’s life don’t matter in the face of a church shooting motivated by racism, and don’t bother to try to tie up loose ends or put effort into the ending beyond paying tribute to the victims of the shooting.
To be sure, the shooting and the racism that caused it are terrible things, but she’d already written a story about people who also mattered, who also faced misogyny, racism and classism, and who, in some cases, were trying to do something about racism and slavery. Readers will be looking for the end of those stories, once they get past the shock of the violence.
It doesn’t add to this story to insert the church incident out of the blue, and it feels exploitative to plop it in the way she does. It would have made more sense for the author to write an appendix honoring the victims of the shooting, and talk about what the church means to her. She could then perhaps devote her entire next book to the story, where she could do it justice.
Post tragedy, the story ending feels abrupt, like Kate is obliged to be happy now, since the church has experienced devastating loss. She’s not allowed any lingering negative emotions as she processes her own past and what she’s found, or to keep researching to answer the remaining questions.
The concept for A Tangled Mercy is a worthwhile one, that could have been a complex, fascinating look into history and modern life in the Deep South. The author has a talent for creating word pictures that make the reader feel as if they can actually see the place she’s describing.
This book is an excuse for a love letter to Charleston, and that part of it is well done. I’m ready to go explore its layers of historical architecture, its Southern food served in welcoming little cafes, and its history through charming carriage and harbor tours, while learning about the rich history of the city.
A Tangled Mercy shows how hard slavery was on the entire society (especially on the slaves, it goes without saying), and how awful and violent racism still are today, but the story itself is flawed. Many people will likely overlook the bad writing and issues with the characters because of the timeliness of the subject matter.
If this book sounded interesting, you might like:
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson
The Outlander Series by Diana Galbaldon
A Garden in the Rain by Lynn Kurland (and others in her paranormal historical romance time-traveling series – the older books are the best)