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.
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 is a rather unsuccessful attempt at combining a contemporary murder mystery with a strong historical element, that being the 19th-century family histories of one black family and one white one. Set in Louisiana, it starts off with the murder of an immigrant female worker on a sugar cane plantation adjacent to the famous building and grounds of Belle Vie, owned by the Clancy dynasty for the better part of 140 years - but one of the recurring questions throughout this tale is whether the Clancys came to own Belle Vie by legitimate means, specifically if a black former slave worker called Jason - who might have had legal title to the property - was murdered back in 1872. The manager of Belle Vie today, a woman named Caren, is a descendent of Jason and is employed by the Clancys. She lives on site with her 9-year-old daugher Morgan, and becomes (in a sense) re-united with her former husband Eric who himself normally lives in Washington DC and is due to marry again in the near future. So another heavy thread to the story is this will-they won't-they 'romance' that at times threatens to take over what is already a slightly confusing mixture of murder and - well, another murder five generations ago.
I enjoyed Attica Locke's first novel Black Water Rising which contained some similar themes about black civil rights and the emergence of black liberation after a long history of suppression and even slavery. And although that novel also meandered a little from its original plot, this second one seems unsure about what it is meant to be from the very beginning. Now that I have finished it - which was a burden at times - I am still not completely sure what it is meant to be. The criminal element is very understated as far as police involvement is concerned, leaving the reader to follow Caren's less than convincing private investigation into the murder after one of her staff is arrested. Halfway through, Belle Vie takes on something of a 'South Fork' identity (from the 1980s TV series Dallas) with an elderly but rarely mentioned patriarch and two quibbling sons - in Dallas it was J.R. and Bobby, in The Cutting Season it's Raymond and - well, Bobby again. For a brief moment the story becomes quite interesting as we hear of Raymond Clancy's political aspirations and the dirty tricks he is suspected of carrying out to become a US Senator - but no sooner does that story direction begin than it effectively ends and the writer becomes more consumed with the relationship between Caren and Eric, a relationship that never rises above the levels of mediocre, mundane and probably of little consequence regardless of how it might end. The other story-line Attica Locke is keen to keep at the forefront is that of the disappearance and demise of Jason in 1872, and again this is hardly one that sets a reader's eyes on fire because whatever might or might not have happened to him, it was all a long time ago and whoever might have been responsible is obviously long gone.
The prose and general writing style are above average, but really there's not much substance or depth on offer here. It has early promise but expectations are never satisfactorily fulfilled. I frequently had the impression that the writer was trying to combine an age-old story that might have taken place in reality in her own family history (or of someone she knows) with a contemporary murder story to give it a wider appeal; the net result is that it is never completely either of those things and the outcome is a neat and tidy mess.
I'm afraid the quote above illustrates an example of why I found this book intensely frustrating.
Locke has a habit of not giving the precise and personal detail which would help the reader identify character - the early introduction of a whole swathe of characters described as 'the thin cop' 'the taller cop' 'fat' 'short etc - and then honing her focus onto a singularly unremarkable detail, like the above, so that briefly the reader thinks 'aha, this identical notebook, it must be IMPORTANT' - but of course, a moment's reflection will reveal the fact that we are talking police issue stationery here. Of course the notebooks will be identical. certainly, by 200 pages in to the novel the notebook detail (page 39) had not resurfaced.
The problem is, the book seems a little unsure of exactly what it is. Is it a thriller? It certainly starts with a murder and the thrust of the book, for the central character, seems to be unravelling the mystery, and the back-jacket praise from James Ellroy appears to suggest this is the genre. however, it meanders slowly, with little sense of mounting tension. Is it an examination of the legacy of the South, set as it is in a former ante-bellum sugar plantation, now become a historical theme park to 'back then'? If so, the texture, the characterisation are not deep enough, personalised enough to give this reader the idea of real people. Is it a story of mothers and daughters, and absent fathers? Again, not enough real characterisation. In fact, the central character seems to behave in a rather inexplicable fashion from the off. Just why does she react so to her small daughter's shirt and behave so peculiarly? It is of course perfectly possible that this psychology, (page 79) which appears to create much of the book's drive, does get revealed at some point, but certainly, nothing remotely explanatory has happened by page 200. I must confess that I could get no further. There were these separate, potentially interesting strands, but for me, the whole lacked either the narrative tension and drive to propel me to page turning, or the depth of sense of place and psychology to lure me into the being of the characters
on 10 December 2014
Caren Gray is General Manager at Belle Vie, an antebellum sugar plantation which is owned by the Clancy family but run as a historic tourist attraction. One day a body is discovered in the plantation fields, a migrant worker, and the local Sherrif's Department focuses on a worker at Belle Vie. Caren is convinced of his innocence and also believes the death may be related to the ambition of one of the Clancy brothers. Caren grew up on the plantation, her family had been associated with the estate since before the Civil War, so how do the recent events link to the mysterious disappearance of her ancestor over a hundred years ago.
This is the second Attica Locke book I have read and it is even better than the first (Black Water Rising). The plot is complex and therefore the book is hard to categorise, it's not a straightforward crime novel but it's also not really literary fiction. What is really engrossing is the power of the land and its hold over the characters. What is also carefully described are the relationships between the different groups of people. Caren is clever woman but she didn't complete Law School because of funding, her mother was a cook and her forebears were slaves, her ex-partner (and her father) were from middle-class African-American families, lawyers and doctors. The Clancy's are rich and powerful members of society as are the clients who book weddings at the plantation house. The workers at Belle Vie are poor white, poor black or poor hispanic, the workers at cane plantation are hispanic immigrants.
'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.
This story, set in 2009, is an intricately plotted thriller, but it is more than that. The ironically-named Belle Vie had once been a slave plantation in Louisiana. It now belonged to the Clancy family who had turned it into a kind of heritage museum, complete with a cast of actors who enact the roles of the slaves and of the owners (idealizing the master-slave relationship) and making it a venue for weddings, corporate functions and school parties. Manager of this enterprise is Caren Gray, who had grown up in Belle Vie and one of whose ancestors, Jason, had been a slave at Belle Vie, had continued to live on the plantation after Emancipation, and had mysteriously disappeared in 1872.
The story more or less begins with discovery of the corpse of a migrant Mexican woman who had worked in Groveland, the sugar cane farm which was adjacent to Belle Vie. The murder had been carried out on the Belle Vie estate, but for some reason the corpse had been moved to Groveland. The police interviewed everyone on Belle Vie, including Caren’s nine-year old daughter Morgan. Caren had found bloodstains on Morgan’s shirt, but concealed this from the police - it is never quite clear to me why she was so suspicious of the police - and had bleached the shirt. Morgan herself for long will not say how the bloodstain had got onto her shirt. Later Caren finds another piece of evidence in the trailer of Groveland’s manager, a modern type of slave driver. This, too, she does not turn over to the police. The police suspect one of the actors, Donovan Isaacs, who had a mildly delinquent record, of the murder and place him under arrest. Caren is sure he had nothing to do with the murder. In one way and another way she becomes involved in the story and in the attempt to clear Donovan and to discover who had murdered the Mexican. In the course of this there are some spooky moments, and some desperate ones as she realizes that she has little credibility with the police and moreover is up against someone who wants Donovan convicted.
This is the thriller part of the story. In addition there is much about the relationship between Caren and her ex-husband, who cares about Morgan as much as her mother does. There is of course a lot about the slavery before Emancipation. A local historian has done research about Nathan Sweats, the first black sheriff in the area after Emancipation and what happened to Nathan when he wanted to charge Jason’s employer with his murder. But the past is never dead, and the surfacing of this story (in more senses than one) nearly 140 years later still has a practical bearing on the present. There is Louisiana politics and business deals. And, as with all good thrillers, there is a totally unexpected ending.
on 20 May 2015
This is a clever, engaging novel. It's set in a former slave plantation that is still owned by a white family and which they run as a wedding venue cum living museum. The protagonist is the daughter of a former slave, grew up on the plantation, and now manages it. Throw into the mix migrant workers cutting sugar cane in the fields around and you have well-seasoned gumbo (pardon the southern cliche - something the novel rarely stoops to). Oh,and it's after Katrina and Obama has just been elected. The writing is strong enough to carry all this baggage, and a well-constructed murder mystery pulls you through.I enjoyed it more than Locke's first novel (Black Water Rising), and for those who take an interest in these things she is also involved in the TV series Empire. Another strong narrative, but with more singing.
on 26 October 2012
I read Black Water rising when it came out on the strength of its reviews and thought it excellent
So often a second novel doesn't come close so I was a little worried.
The Cutting Season is really good.
It is excellent in terms of the development of a sense of menace. All explored against a a backdrop of love, politics, race, migrant workers and history. That makes it sound potentially horribly worthy. It isn't.
Also very clever is the use of the sanitised tourist location of the house and the reality of the horrors that took place in the past.
This is a complicated and atmospheric novel and I will definitely be distributing some Christmas copies to some of my nearest and dearest.