The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh (Spiegel & Grau, March 11, 2013)-In the Ozarks, in the tiny town of Henbane, 17 year old Lucy Dane dreams of the world outside of Henbane, but for now, she’s happy working at her Uncle Crete’s general store and spending time with her best friend, Bess. When the body of a girl named Cheri is discovered, after her disappearance a year ago, Lucy is horrified, not only at her death, but at the town’s lack of concern. Oh, they’re concerned alright, for their own safety, but the fact that a teenage girl has been killed and dismembered, shoved into the hollow of a tree, pitifully exposed and on display, seems to come in a close second. Soon, Lucy enlists the help of her friend (and hopefully more), Daniel Cole, to help her to find out what happened to Cheri, and in the process, starts to seek answers to what really happened to her mother, who also disappeared when Lucy was very small.
Lucy feels that no one cares about what happened to Cheri, and is disgusted by how, until the news vans showed up and everyone clamored for attention, people would have been happy enough to let her murder go unsolved. Rumors flew through the town, most seemingly meant to frighten young children the most, but Lucy wants to know what happens to this simple girl who was so trusting, and so lost. Where was she for an entire year before her murder? This passage gives a good glimpse into what Cheri’s life was like, and why Lucy’s guilt weighed so heavy:
“I replayed our mornings together, Cheri’s and mine, sifted through our last conversations. She’d talked mostly about her “boyfriends,” pervs who hung around her mom’s trailer and told her she was pretty and tried to feel her up. Boys our age, the ones at school, were cruel. They called her a retard and made her cry. I told her to ignore them, but I never told them to stop, and that’s what I remembered when Cheri’s body turned up in the tree: the ways I had failed her. Like how I’d been her best friend, but she wasn’t mine. How I’d worried something might have happened when she went missing, but didn’t do anything about it.”
The Weight of Blood is told in alternating viewpoints: first person for Lucy and her mother, Lila, and we also get third person accounts from other characters. If that sounds confusing, it’s not. The author will let you know who’s doing the talking, and it’s a very, very effective way of telling this story. Lucy’s search for the truth about what happened to Cheri parallels her newly motivated search for her mother Lila, who arrived in Henbane so many years ago to work on Lucy’s uncle’s farm. What really struck me about this book is how well adjusted Lucy actually is. I mention this because so many times, especially when it comes to suspense, you get a lot of tortured characters or characters with dark secrets and complicated pasts. There is a dark spot in Lucy’s past, which is her mother’s disappearance, but keep in mind, she was only a baby when it happened, and she’s grown up surrounded by the fierce love of her father, her Uncle Crete, and various other family and friends of the family. Lucy is a healthy, happy, and smart young woman, and she’s also a determined one. Lucy is one of my favorite characters in a quite a while, and although her passages were among the best, I really enjoyed Lila’s tale of how she came to be in Henbane, and the time leading up to, and shortly after, Lucy’s birth and her subsequent disappearance.
As you’ve probably guessed, being set in a small town, the story has its share of secrets interwoven in the narrative. Some of these secrets are pretty dark, sometimes ugly and tragic, and Laura McHugh creates an atmosphere of creeping dread when Lucy starts getting closer to the truth. The Weight of Blood is indeed a mystery, but it’s also an expert portrait of small town life, and of the myths that can permeate a group of people, and cause paranoia and suspicion of the worst kind. The best example of this is Lila’s arrival in the community. Lila Petrovich is beautiful, indeed, exotic ,and it’s pretty much a hide-your-man and burn-the-witch free for all. After all, someone that beautiful is not to be trusted, and the spell she casts over Henbane’s male population must be witchcraft. It might be laughable if it wasn’t deadly serious. The landscape that the author creates will get under your skin and cause a most pleasurable itch, but of course, it’s also a landscape full of ghostly mystery and plenty of dark, out of the way places (all the better to hide a body or two.) Laura McHugh is an artist, the Ozarks are her canvas, and she handles her subject matter brilliantly, with compassion and realism. Yes, there is darkness in Henbane, but there is also light. Lucy pretty much nails it in one, speaking of her losses, and the siren song of home:
“The Ozarks did have a way of calling folks home, thought I never thought I’d be one of them. All my life I had told myself I didn’t belong here. Henbane was a map of the devil, his backbone, eye, and throat, its caves and rivers a geography of my loss. But I hadn’t taken into account how a place becomes part of you, claims you for its own. Like it or not, my roots tangled deep in the rocky soil. I would leave Henbane, but home sings in your bones, and I wondered how far I could go before the hills would call me back.”
If you only read a few books this year, I urge you to make The Weight of Blood one of them. This is literary suspense at its very finest, and I couldn’t put it down. Lucy is a heroine to root for, and for that matter, so is Lila. Come for the mystery, stay for the beautiful writing, sense of place, and characters that will burrow into your imagination. This isn’t a book, it’s an experience, one that you won’t soon forget.