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The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen
Young adult

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis

by Keija Parssinen

Quick take

An impeccably rendered depiction of the strains of adolescence.

Why I love it

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is both a study of a milieu that we rarely encounter in fiction — a devoutly religious refinery town on the Texas coast — and an impeccably rendered depiction of the strains of adolescence and the complications of family and friendship.

The novel opens with a gruesome discovery that becomes an overnight scandal. As local police and politicians contend with increasing public pressure to find the perpetrator, suspicion turns on the girls in the local high school, who quickly find themselves under an intolerable microscope.

The story moves back and forth between two girls, Mercy and Illa, who occupy vastly different social strata at the school. Mercy is the star of the high school basketball team, in a town where high school basketball is a very, very big deal. There are times when she seems to carry the weight of the struggling town on her shoulders. But the pressures in her life extend well beyond the court. She is being raised by her grandmother, a woman gripped by spells of violent prophesying, who is convinced that end times are upon us. Mercy is torn between her secular and religious worlds.

Illa, meanwhile, is nearly invisible. She is awkwardly, secretly in love with Mercy, but goes unnoticed at school. She lives a tense, solitary life, taking care of her mother, who is wheelchair-bound and in poor health. The girls are drawn together when Mercy — and eventually the rest of the girls in Port Sabine — begins to unravel.

I found this novel to be a lovely discovery. As a reader, there are few things I enjoy more than coming across excellent work by an author who I hadn't previously heard of, and I admired the way the novel seemed specific to the individual lives of the characters, and yet at the same time broadly relevant to our present cultural moment. This is a beautifully written, humane, and extremely compelling book.

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