But there was always so much we didn’t know about people, lurking right below the surface where we couldn’t see it.
Secrets and kin are what tangle together the mysterious plot of Laura McHugh’s debut novel, The Weight of Blood. The story is told mostly from alternating points of view between Lucy, a seventeen-year-old girl living in the Missouri Ozarks, and Lila, her mother who disappeared sixteen years earlier when she was just a couple of years older than Lucy herself. The novel begins with the mutilated body of a local girl, Cheri Stoddard, whose corpse is propped up in a tree for all of the town to see. We come to find out that Lucy was Cheri’s one and only friend, and even that latter description seemed to be in flux. The murdered girl was often described as a “retard,” with most people treating her like a piece of trash much like her lifeless body eventually became. Cheri’s murder is what finally gives Lucy the momentum to find out what happened to her mother all of those years ago.
The heart of the novel lies with the premise that not everything is as its seems; the truth is found much deeper and usually in a much more frightening place. Lucy’s comforts and lifelong perceptions transform as she pulls back more of the story of Cheri’s murder and Lila’s disappearance. The insular town of Henbane where they all live in the Ozarks will feel backwards to us Yanks. Kin come first and outsiders are looked upon as threats. Some of the older folk had never seen “Negros” or “Orientals,” and when Lila shows up, half the town brands her a witch because she has an exotic look (dark hair, greens eyes, which happens to be the only description anyone ever gives about this new arrival to Henbane–an unfortunate, lazy cop out by the author) and she comes from a foreign place to the north called Iowa.
McHugh does an interesting thing with the novel’s structure. For the first part, there are alternating chapters between Lucy in the present and Lila in the past, allowing for a steady buildup to help explain pockets in the local mythology of Lila and the recent brutal murder of Cheri. As the book goes on, McHugh does add chapters that are told in third-person giving a different perspective from some of the other characters.
The town of Henbane, locked away in the Ozark Mountains, already has an unpleasant mood cast over it. Some of the natural landmarks are called Old Scratch and Devil’s Throat, obviously indicating that it is both a metaphorical and literal Hell. Violence, sex, murder, and prostitution are what make up this underbelly.
The secrets held beneath the surface are violent and unnerving. McHugh does a good job of concealing knowledge for just the right amount of time before letting Lucy and the reader in on the secrets that the townsfolk have been harboring. However, I was a little exhausted by the perpetual violence against women in this book. I know this is mostly due to the fact that lately we have just been so inundated with it in all forms of media and this is not the fault of the author. Luckily, the first-person sections of Lucy and Lila offer fully formed personal voices to tell their stories. The female characters, in general, are more developed than the men, which is a plus to alleviate this fatigue from the never-ending cycle.
The book was appealing and I certainly found myself whipping through chapters to see what new revelations would be detailed. Lucy is headstrong and doesn’t put up with the same bullying that her mother once did. For some of the men in the novel, women are meant to be locked in a box, whether this is a form of protection or for a more sinister reason. Lucy is always fighting against this and any taming that is tried on her is a failure.
The Weight of Blood definitely finds its strongest moments with Lucy and McHugh’s lulling descriptions of a place that is anything but calming. Overall, I enjoyed it and would definitely recommend the book (especially for people in True Detective withdrawal who need another injection of Southern mystery and superstitious backwoods types who are up to no good), but I can’t rid myself of the feeling that some of the characters could have been drawn with more detail and that certain confessions were given too easily, especially with ones that had been guarded secrets for over a decade. But in a way, its shortfalls can be overlooked for McHugh’s creation of a place that is anything but trustworthy and where “a man with clean nails hides his dirt on the inside.”
**The Weight of Blood was just released and is available from Spiegel & Grau.