Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Book Review: The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

I keep saying that I'll pick back up my reading speed, but I continue to feel too worn down to focus as well or as much as I'd like.  I suppose the good side is that I have a "to read" pile and am not fretting about being book-less (an odd comment given the "library" in the basement....I do believe in re-reading, a position eased by a limited memory).  This one was slated for reading in the fall, but late is better than never!

Mystery isn't one of my most-loved genre, but I have a great fondness for novels with a sense of place and that is what drew me to this novel (provided by the kind folks at Harper).  The setting is Belle Vie, a former sugar cane plantation turned tourist attraction and event space in Louisiana.  Caren Gray traces her family back to field slaves, including one who stayed on after being freed following the Civil War and disappeared in a never-solved mystery.  Caren's late mother worked at Belle Vie and, along with her young daughter, Caren has returned to serve as the site's manager.  The novel opens as a body is found in one of the preserved slave cabins.  The victim is later identified as a migrant cane worker employed by a neighboring farm recently taken over by a large corporation.  Caren grows interested in finding the murderer, in part because the police are focusing on an employee that she believes is innocent, and also in uncovering more about her own roots.  In a side plot, Caren's ex-boyfriend arrives because of their shared concerns for their daughter's safety, pulling complex feelings to the surface, emotions heightened by his approaching wedding to another woman.

This novel earns 3.5 stars from me, a rating I am inclined to round down to make the "full star"-only sites happy.  Locke is clearly aiming for social commentary in the novel, both relating to our view of the past (emphasized by the play put on daily that shows slaves who love living and working on the plantation) and commenting on the current world of migrant farm work.  This gets a bit too heavy-handed and overt, she's trying to show rather than tell but it needs some work.  The mystery element was above-average, better than some typical detective stories and well-related to the other elements of the story.  The sense of place was a plus. It allowed me to visit a distinct region, but I still felt it had some room for improvement.  As for relationships, I wanted to see more of Caren's daughter and less of her ex.  It also felt like some characters were tossed in, there for color (that's not intended to refer to race) and not fully rounded.  Overall, the highlight of the book is Locke's talent for crafting language.  She writes beautifully.  I can't decide if this is praise or criticism, but my ultimate verdict is on The Cutting Season is that the language trumped the plot.

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