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I’ve reviewed quite a few books over the past few years. Some I’ve had a lot of fun reviewing, some were more sober endeavors. But I haven’t actually feared reviewing any of them.
Why fear? Well, because of the two things I think people fear most: the unknown and failure. I don’t know how to best approach representing this incredible story, and, regardless of the approach I choose, I’m certain I’ll fail to do the book justice.
So, you’re going to have to work with me here. Please be patient.
The Story. Lauren Durough is a young well-to-do university student in covert rebellion against her heritage. Abigail Broyles is an elderly well-to-do retiree in covert rebellion against her legacy. Interposed between them is Mercy Hayworth, an innocent victim of the horrific 17th-century Salem witchcraft trials. Okay, so how does that work? At the marvelously skillful hand of author Susan Meissner, it works exceedingly well.
Abigail retains Lauren to transcribe Mercy’s diary, a precious family heirloom. Lauren is to approach her task wrapped in a cloak of ignorance; that is, she must promise not to research the events surrounding the trials until she’s completed the transcription. Mercy Hayworth must be allowed to speak for herself, unfettered by historiography. Also woven into this cloak, though, is the real reason Abigail has selected Lauren as the transcriptionist, as is the effect the words of a simple girl from a distant era will have on her own self-perception.
An intriguing cast of supporting characters push and pull at Lauren throughout the story, adding their own contemporary thematic hue to the faded brown ink of Mercy’s ancient journal. Through it all, Lauren will either mature into her future or collapse under her past. There’s no other option.
The Writing. As writers, we’re encouraged to keep our readers on the edge, to force that next page turn, anything to breathe new life into the tired cliché “I couldn’t put it down.” There are techniques to do that, such as ending scenes and chapters with mini-cliffhangers, dangling questions that simply must be answered now. And gadgets like that have their place.
But then there’s writing like Ms. Meissner’s.
You know quality prose when you’re not sure you want to turn the next page, but find yourself compelled to do so—not because of a dangling question, but because the titanium thread binding the storyline blurs the distinction between pages, and so you go on. You have to. And you will.
Intense and honest, humorous and poignant; I’ve yet to read a book that I’d recommend more highly than The Shape of Mercy. — Bruce Judisch