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Author Christy Ann Conlin.

Kate Inglis/Handout

  • Title: The Speed of Mercy
  • Author: Christy Ann Conlin
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: House of Anansi Press
  • Pages: 418

Malmuria (“Mal”) Grant-Patel, a young podcaster turned amateur journalist, has returned to her hometown of Seabury, N.S., to investigate a tip she received from an interviewee, Flora, that she can’t ignore: a 40-year-old cold case, disappearing girls, and a group of powerful men in New York hiding under the cloak of a company worth billions. Just after this interview, Flora flings herself from a window. Despite warnings to leave it alone, Mal feels obliged to investigate.

Thus begins Christy Ann Conlin’s new novel, The Speed of Mercy, in which she uses breathtaking prose to explore insidious commodification of women, ruthlessly deconstructing stereotypes of female capability, worth, ageism and mental illness. She does this through weaving the lives of the women of Seabury, fluctuating between past and present, memory and trauma, and point of view.

Handout

Despite the novel opening with Mal reflecting on this interview and her remembrance of Mercy Lake, Mal is not, in fact, Conlin’s main character. That role belongs to Stella Sprague, whose own narrative is delivered in an alternating timeline between pre-teen Stella and middle-aged Stella. At 54 and living in a long-term home with her best friend, Dianne, Stella is hardly able to recall or tell her own story due to memory loss and mutism. It is revealed that Stella has remained silent since she was 13, the time in which Stella’s younger plot unfolds.

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The events of young Stella’s life 40 years prior are far more provocative than those of present Stella and appear to serve as Conlin’s main plot. After a fatal car accident that took the life of her mother and left pre-teen Stella with a traumatic brain injury, the girl and her father move back to Seabury to start anew. While there, Stella meets 13-year-old Cynthia, an enigmatic and unique character to whom Stella is drawn in a complex way.

Stella’s father, who is struggling with his own grief in a rather self-indulgent way, attempts to strike up a friendship with young Cynthia that verges on creepy. This dynamic resonates with Conlin’s critique of the male wish to be affirmed by the attentions of a pretty young girl, while hinting at the dark mystery surrounding Seabury and Mercy Lake.

Cynthia introduces Stella to Granny Scotia, a character who plays into a “wise woman” trope that normally would feel outdated, but Conlin carries it off. During the ensuing months young Stella spends with Cynthia and Granny Scotia, she is drawn into a group of local men whose power extends beyond brotherhood and into something far more ominous. Meanwhile, in the present day, Mal is uncovering the events of 1980, leading her to Stella and a cabin at Mercy Lake.

Throughout the novel, Conlin’s exploration of mental illness, feminism and ageism is beautiful. She deftly avoids stigmatizing characterizations and writes protagonists who are believable, understandable, and reach out imperfectly from the page. The breadth of her understanding of experiences that carve paths and personalities is entirely believable, although her wide cast of characters can sometimes get confusing and perhaps would have been better simplified. Her placement of women in a gendered spectrum of commodification is entirely relevant – they are measured by their usefulness to men and, when deemed unfit for that role, are silenced behind the closed doors of long-term-care facilities.

The Speed of Mercy does eventually dovetail the past and present, but lands on a final conclusion that, despite Conlin’s uncanny ability to create a textured world, doesn’t do the novel or her characters justice.

For the most part, The Speed of Mercy is a beautiful tale about female friendship, the complexities of ageism, gender, trauma and mental illness, but ends up becoming entangled in slightly off-putting use of difficult and perhaps unnecessary tropes. Using them as a vehicle to deliver her criticisms doesn’t feel as contemplative as the remainder of the novel, but rather like grasping for a plot device in which to nestle an otherwise important and well-written narrative.

However, if taken solely as a story about women, silence, and the space they are afforded in society, The Speed of Mercy is a stunning literary work. Conlin’s writing is nothing short of brilliant and her ability to create characters who are flawed, mercurial and magnetic is effortless. It’s a slow simmer that builds, but draws out a little too long, and with an abrupt and disappointing ending that simply doesn’t do the beauty of the novel justice. If Conlin had avoided these missteps, The Speed of Mercy would be a contender for one of the best novels of 2021.

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