Early one misty morning in rural Louisiana, the body of a young immigrant woman is discovered in a shallow grave on the grounds of Belle Vie - a former plantation, now a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the American South. Belle Vie's manager, Caren, whose own history is closely linked to the plantation, is drawn into the police investigation and soon makes a series of disturbing discoveries.
This book may initially present itself as a crime thriller, but it's actually a work of literary fiction that deals with some powerful issues.
As a setting, the former plantation of Belle Vie is oppressive and weighed down with historical significance, not only for the characters, but for America itself.
Thanks to her heritage, Caren is tied to Belle Vie. Her great-great-great grandfather, Jason, is a legend. Having chosen to stay on at the plantation after the Civil War ended slavery, he mysteriously disappeared into the night and was never heard from again. Caren grew up with her mother, who worked as a cook at Belle Vie and told her stories of her ancestors and their lives on the plantation.
After moving away to study law, Caren and her daughter ended up back at Belle Vie in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and Caren has grown accustomed to the routines of the place that has dominated her life. But that all changes when a young woman, an immigrant worker from the neighbouring farm, is found dead.
The modern day events at Belle Vie parallel those that happened in the past. The two aspects of the story are so inextricably entwined that the past can never really be forgotten; it haunts the present, much as the spirits of slave workers are said to linger in the tiny cottages where they once lived. Perhaps this is a parallel for the way that racial division, whilst officially a thing of the past, still simmers under the surface in many parts of America. Certainly the presence of migrant workers in the fields beside Belle Vie is an issue to those who now work in the museum, and worry that their jobs will be lost to their new neighbours.
Family is another key theme, and takes many forms: from parents and their children, to lovers, childhood friends, and transient relationships that provide comfort in a foreign place. As Caren tries to investigate the murder, she is also forced to face her family issues and the connections between the two.
A beautifully written, intelligent and passionate story that encompasses generations of American history. Attica Locke has composed a compelling and intricate mystery to follow her debut Black Water Rising, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.
'The Cutting Season' by Attica Locke is a complex, intriguing tale of Belle Vie, a plantation in the Deep South of America. Belle Vie has a role to fill - that of portraying the past. Tourists come to visit the plantation, to experience history. The staff at Belle Vie re-enact the plantations' 'Glory Days' - each staff member acting out a typical 'Day in the life of' scenario. Caren is the plantation manager, making sure that everything runs smoothly. Belle Vie is hired out for weddings and functions, and Caren oversees the house and grounds and staff as part of her daily routine. She is part of Belle Vie's history, her Mother having been the cook there for many years, and now Caren is living there with her daughter, Morgan. Belle Vie has many stories to tell, not least the stories of the slaves who lived and worked there, and who made it the rich plantation that it became. Times move on, things change, and Belle Vie has to change accordingly. Secrets have a way of revealing themselves, no matter how old they are, and the truth will eventually be discovered. Belle Vie has many secrets.
This is a really good, descriptive book, that I really enjoyed. I thought that it was a little slow at times, but is well worth sticking with in my opinion. It is beautifully written, and Belle Vie comes to life through the author's words. There's opulence, history, intrigue, mystery, and, ultimately, resolution in this story, which I really liked. I definitely recommend this book, it's not a book that can be rushed through, it needs to be savoured. I do think that there are some slow spots in it, when my attention span faltered a little, but I'm glad that I stayed with it, as it picked up and carried me along.
The Cutting Season is more a novel with a murder at its heart than a crime novel per se - not that crime novels are inferior, I'm a great fan, but just to give you a more accurate picture of this rich and accomplished book. Attica Locke weaves the thrill of the hunt for a killer, with a fabulous historical lesson in slavery in the American Deep South, and the struggle of one woman's personal battles with the scars of her heritage.
The setting for the story is a former slave plantation and estate in Louisiana, where Caren Gray now lives with her nine year old daughter, and works as the manager of the heritage site it has become. But this ain't no Gone With the Wind. The book opens with the discovery of a the body of a young migrant worker from the neighbouring sugar cane business, whose throat has been brutally cut. Caren gets embroiled in the search for the killer, and for her it quickly gets personal, in both the way the events start to affect her own and her family's lives, and due to the roots her family have with the land and its own dark past.
Caren is relieved and confused when her lawyer ex partner comes to her aid, primarily to make sure that their daughter is safe, but their buried feelings for each other don't stay that way for long. The tension is ratcheted up very skillfully as the drama plays out, with a killer on the loose, and ghosts of the past haunting the vast estate. And the descriptive evocation of the darkness and the foreboding atmosphere of the place, both actual and metaphorical, is palpable.
Gray is a great heroine - smart and daring, capable yet vulnerable at the same time. And through her Locke is able to create a fabulous portrait of slavery, and draw comparisons to the bleak situation modern day migrant workers, and how they are exploited in a very similar contemporary way by the political forces around them. The conflicts of the past are shown to be just as relevant, and shocking, today as they were in the shameful days of slavery.
on 6 November 2012
Caren is the manager at Belle Vie, a sprawling plantation house deep in Louisiana One morning whilst making her inspection of the grounds, she comes across a young Mexican woman, brutally murdered and discarded. With the police investigation inadequate, Caren investigates and the more she finds out, the more she starts to suspect a cover up. The white owner of the property is desperate to sell, the woman's employer has a history of violence and she might have uncovered something she shouldn't have just before her death. The investigation even leads back to Caren's ancestor Joseph, a slave on the plantation that disappeared soon after gaining freedom. An ambitious book, The Cutting Season covers race relations, history and politics as well as a criminal investigation.
On the whole, I enjoyed Cutting Season. It's expertly written and ambitious in coverage. The topics of race and slavery are handled sensitively and the book is thought provoking - who should really own the plantation houses? Should they be preserved for history or should we wipe the slate clean and start again? Does history belong to all of us or just a select few? Should history affect modern day decisions? Although I'm not a big fan of crime fiction, I could see that the mystery of who had killed Ines was well structured with enough red herrings to keep me guessing. I didn't work out who it was before the big reveal.
Despite everything I enjoyed about the book, it just seemed to be missing that special something. I don't know if it was purely because I don't love crime, but the middle section lagged and I never felt fully engaged with the story. In some ways, I think Locke was too ambitious and couldn't do everything she wanted to do within the confines of a crime/mystery novel; the genre was too restrictive for all the themes she wanted to cover. Locke was experimental by adding so much more to the genre but too confined by the conventions of the genre. I would have liked to see more of a gothic literary style novel rather than a traditional whodunit.
I'm sure crime fans will love this book as it's a good mystery and the writing is excellent. I wasn't the biggest fan of this one but I don't think I was the right reader for it.
2010. Louisville's Belle Vie Plantation is but a fraction of its former size, so much land now the Groveland Corporation's sugar cane fields. The big house and immediate surrounds double as a living museum (popular with school parties) and venue for lavish functions, weddings in particular. At the centre of everything is Caren Gray, her ancestors once slaves on the estate. Now she is General Manager, ensuring all runs smoothly. This it does not, when a body is found....
This atmospheric, thoughtprovoking novel is far more than a murder mystery. Fascinating facts emerge of past and present, both full of undercurrents and questions unanswered. Is the plantation's history as officially depicted? Whatever became of Caren's forebear Jason in 1872? What about the current workforce, it resentful that one of its own be in a position of authority? What are the Clancy family owners up to? Rumours abound of secret agendas, a possible closure. What chance of a job elsewhere with so many immigrants in the area - many illegal and all prepared to work for low rates?
The tale is rich and full of surprises. Seasoned readers may suspect quite early on how it will end - not the identity of the killer perhaps, but what the future of Belle Vie will be. They could be in for a shock. I was certainly taken aback.
Not everything works, the novel's greatest strengths perhaps not about the actual murder investigation. (There certain aspects did not entirely convince - some of Caren's nocturnal activities, the business of the blouse, the earring, etc.) Much, though, appeals with some likeable characters - Caren herself, the loyal Eric, reporter Lee Owens, prime suspect Donovan Isaacs (especially when HIS secret agenda comes to light).
An enjoyable, absorbing read.
(Check out the fine map - very useful. Note the quotation that precedes it - very significant.)
I have to admit that I was very disappointed by this novel. While it has an intriguing concept and promising opening scenes, it ultimately failed to deliver, and I felt that Attica Locke was grappling with something which isn't quite a crime thriller but isn't literary fiction either - always tricky territory to navigate. Even as I was reading the compelling opening, which places the lead character, Caren, firmly in the atmospheric setting of Belle Vue, an old Louisiana plantation now turned into a tourist attraction and popular wedding venue, I found Locke's style occasionally jarring. She has an unfortunate habit of repeatedly writing two sentences that each occupy their own paragraph:
The sentences are like this.
It keeps on happening.
This reminded me of some of the trashier novels I read during my teenage years, and added a melodramatic edge to what was otherwise very competent prose, as if Locke was trying too hard to dial up the tension. As she continues her tale of Caren's discovery of the body of a Mexican cane worker found on the edge of the grounds of the plantation, the strong sense of place in the opening section faded, and about halfway through, I found myself losing interest in the crime and not particularly caring who had murdered the girl. Caren's relationships with her ex-husband, Eric, and her daughter, Morgan, initially appear to possess some complexity, as well, but Locke failed to further explore the connections between these three people, or deepen Caren's character further than our initial impression of her, although we do gradually discover more about her past life.
It's a shame that this novel was not better-written, as there is some very promising material here - the theme of race is an obvious thread throughout the story, as Caren, a black woman who has family links to the plantation through her slave ancestors, deals with her conflicted feelings about managing the site, and we learn that racism is now being directed towards the Mexican cane workers who now harvest the crops, although of course this doesn't negate the past or present suffering of the majority black population. However, these interesting ideas are gradually subsumed under the insistent plotting of a straightforward crime novel - although, of course, the best crime novels take thematic resonance in their stride. Despite these stabs towards readability, even Locke's dramatic prose and over-use of cliffhangers didn't make the story exciting, and so it's left with the same unsolvable problem - it's neither compulsively addictive, nor truly thoughtful.
And so I finally made a decision.
I was going to stop reading this book.
on 30 March 2013
The Cutting Season is Attica Locke's second novel. Her first, Black Water Rising, was one of the most acclaimed debuts of 2009, winning, or being shortlisted for many awards, including the prestigious Orange Prize. The scope of this book was wider than that of many crime novels. The Cutting Season is more in the tradition of mainstream crime fiction.
It is set in the haunted and haunting landscape of Louisiana, on an old sugar plantation, Belle Vie, that has been in the hands of the same family since shortly after the civil war. The house and the plantation have been preserved and restored, funded to become part of the heritage industry, providing elegant backdrops for events, beautiful vistas, a sanitised past - and the huts of the old slave village.
Caren Gray, a descendant of the slaves who worked the plantation, is the manager of Belle Vie, organising weddings, conferences and educational visits. The staff of Belle Vie feed and entertain the visitors, and offer them a regularly performed play, The Olden Days of Belle Vie, about a plantation in which family and slaves work together in a peaceful harmony before the upheaval of war.
Caren is not unaware of the irony of this. Her ancestors cut cane in the fields of this plantation, and her great, great grandfather, Jason, stayed on as a freed slave, working the land, until he disappeared in a mystery that has remained unsolved to the present day.
Caren does not have time to think too deeply about the past. She has to make a living and bring up her daughter, Morgan. She observes the old slave cabins with unease and avoids them if she can. She lives in the main house with her daughter, supervises the often uncooperative staff and liaises with the family who own the house.
Against this backdrop of antebellum idyll, a new workforce cuts the sugar cane, Mexican immigrants struggling to support themselves and their families in a world that exploits them, denies them access to work and often exposes them to violence: slaves in all but name.
The book opens with a cottonmouth snake falling from a tree during a wedding party, into the lap of a bride's mother, a juxtaposition as dangerous and uncomfortable - and as quickly accommodated - as the juxtaposition of celebration and slavery, revisionism and hard-won truth the modern day Belle Vie represents.
The body of a female migrant worker is found in a shallow grave close to the fence that divides the plantation from the cane fields. The police investigation into this killing seems to be taking the simplest route - to pin the crime on Donovan Isaacs, a young actor who works at the plantation and is rebelling against the revisionist play, The Olden Days of Belle Vie.
Gradually, the murder draws Caren in. She discovers blood on her daughter's clothes and begins to realise Morgan is lying to her about the events of the night of the murder. A red pickup truck starts following her, the police seem hostile and suspicious, the staff of Belle Vie exclude her from their circle and keep their secrets to themselves.
The Cutting Season explores the ongoing consequences of the old South in the context of new social orders, the pressures to rewrite, or redress the past against the new pressures of corporate greed and the need for identity. It is a compelling novel, slow-moving and beautifully written. It contains all the elements of a traditional mystery: a murder, a growing list of suspects, an investigation that is heading inexorably in the wrong direction; within a novel about the ways in which we cannot escape a past that seems condemned to repeat itself. If the denouement is less satisfactory than the novel itself, this is probably because Locke has great expectations of the genre and asks it to carry more than a traditional genre novel can.
Attica Locke's Black Water Rising is a hard act to follow, and The Cutting Season does not disappoint.
Caren Gray is employed as a manager at Belle Vie - a plantation house in Louisiana now used as a tourist venue and as a setting for weddings and conferences. Much of the estate looks the same as it did before the Civil War and is complete with slave quarter. A play telling a sanitized version of the story of Belle Vie is performed several times daily by a cast playing the parts of slaves, overseer, house servants and Southern belles. The irony is that Caren is a black woman whose ancestors were slaves at Belle Vie.
The body of a young woman is found murdered in the grounds. She is identified as one of the Mexican workers employed on the neighbouring sugar plantation. Her boss Raymond Clancy wants the whole thing hushed up and settled as soon as possible but Caren finds herself increasingly drawn in to the mystery of why the woman was killed and what else may be going on at Belle Vie.
Attica Locke has created a terrific character in Caren. She is intelligent and hard-working but has a curious detachment from other people. Although she likes her co-workers she is not "one of them". She has no close friends and seems to value her privacy and independence. Her instinct is not to trust the police so she fails to tell them all she could and actually hides some evidence. As the story unfolds she comes to realise that acting alone may not be the answer and she finds she also has to rely on her ex-partner Eric who is the father of her daughter and also on Lee Owens, a local news reporter.
The Cutting Season is much more than a crime story. It is about how slavery still impacts on the South to this day. The past may be gone but it is far from forgotten. History and folk memories loom large throughout.
An intelligent, powerful and humane novel - with some really scary moments!
A body has been found in the grounds of a historical plantation in Louisiana and the shock waves are affecting everyone who works in and around the estate. Alongside this there is also a disappearance which occurred after the American Civil War which seems to be related.
Caren, the manager of the plantation and the main character in the book, was brought up on the estate and has now returned, anxious to find out more about her family history.
This author writes very well. The setting and the characters are established quickly with plenty of hints about what is to come later on in the book (there is plenty more to find out about Caren's mum as the story moves on).
The estate is a big character itself in the book and all of its elements are important. The version of the book I read had a map at the beginning which I always love as it really gives you a feel for the atmosphere. There is a huge amount of history used as background but it isn't used as effectively as it could be, with the overwhelming majority of the book being focused on the modern use of the buildings (ie tourist attraction and entertainment space). It is a murder mystery/thriller story but the murder almost comes second place to the plantation which is an interesting concept - I think it could have been more balanced but it is a good read never the less.
Personally, I was not convinced about the character of Caren. She balances the whole mother/working issue which is good but does some very bizarre things and says some very odd things to the police, taking it on herself to investigate the murder. I didn't really engage with Caren as I didn't understand her motive, maybe if it had been written in the first person I might have been able to get into her skin.
Overall, to be recommended but not the best book I have read of its type.
The Cutting Season is a slow-paced but absorbing read. The book is set at Belle Vie, a lovingly recreated sugar-cane plantation in Louisiana which is a major tourist attraction as well as a venue for high-society weddings and banquets. The author uses the setting to examine past and present attitudes to the Black history of the state. Caren is the manager of Belle Vie, acting for the Clancy family who own it. She's an uptight person, uneasy about the celebrations (via a thrice-daily theatre show) of the old days of slavery and the Civil War, and hating the shacks on the land which reconstruct the slaves' quarters. Caren's own personal history gradually emerges: she grew up on the plantation, escaped to law school, but for reasons unknown to the reader until the end of the book, has given up her studies and returned, together with her daughter Morgan.
The first part of the book is the least successful, dwelling on Caren's prickly character, her mostly unrevealed past and present dilemmas, and on the characters who live and work at Belle Ville. There is a plot, in the form of Caren's discovery of a dead woman near the perimiter fence. She is reluctant to help the police investigation into the crime, while at the same time finding herself followed by a mysterious pick-up truck as well as suffering various nerve-wracking episodes. She begins to realise that hidden events in the nineteenth century may be relevant to these experiences.
The second part of the novel is the most enjoyable, as the past and present mysteries fuse. Caren's ex-partner Eric, as well as a journalist called Owens, make an entrance and provide the book with some perspective and direction, representing ways in which Caren can escape her environment if she dares. Gradually, Caren uncovers more about the victim and her life, as well as trying to come to terms with her and Morgan's own future.
The Cutting Season is strong on atmosphere and a sense of claustrophobia as Caren struggles to become truly independent in a small, closed society which treats her with little respect. She stubbornly digs into the past and present mysteries, with some help from Eric and from Owens. In the end, both mysteries are solved in a rather unsatisfactory way, depending on someone suddenly deciding to look at something that has been untouched for years, and on a somewhat clunky "pick one of the cast of characters" denouement. Nevertheless, The Cutting Season is an assured, serious and involving novel which I recommend.