BookBrowse Reviews A Question of Mercy by Elizabeth Cox

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A Question of Mercy

A Novel

by Elizabeth Cox

A Question of Mercy by Elizabeth Cox X
A Question of Mercy by Elizabeth Cox
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  • Published:
    Oct 2016, 224 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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About this Book



A Question of Mercy grapples with the powerful bonds of love and family.

Authors leave little gifts for readers, which seem to turn up at the exact right moment. Perhaps a quote or passage from a favorite book that helps one get through a rough time, or an early work that one returns to after many years, or the discovery that an author has had a second career guiding other writers who are now waiting to be discovered.

The late, truly great Pat Conroy's gift was the latter. His editorship at the Story River Books imprint for the University of South Carolina Press gave other Southern writers a big boost up – writers such as Elizabeth Cox and her quietly powerful A Question of Mercy.

The novel opens in 1953 Goshen, North Carolina with a mystery. What happened to 17-year-old Jess Booker's stepbrother, Adam Finney, at the French Broad River when she was with him? Did he drown on his own, or did she help him so that he wouldn't have to be sent back to the barbaric state asylum, Cadwell Institution. This is a solemn, sad, achingly beautiful mystery. Like many gifted Southern writers, Cox worships at the altar of words. She knows the importance of their storytelling power, and not just in their meaning, but also in the way their sounds clearly announce their arrival and how pace can be set with them. Words set scenes in the reader's imagination, and the right few can paint a picture of utter devastation. Cox has many such scenes to offer. There are, for example, grim, disturbing details of Adam's "treatments" at Cadwell, including an electroshock therapy session from his point of view, and the pain and anguish within Jess's family over what to do about Adam, whose body and sexuality are clearly developing, while his mind remains a child's.

Jess's own anguish, after running away in panic to Lula, Alabama and a particular boarding house important to her late mother, carry their own sizable weight. These moments in particular, as well as the ones focusing on Jess's life with Adam, are filled with poetic descriptions and turns of phrase that strike the soft top of the heart and burrow into the deepest chambers. Language that we know and use every day feels brand new here. The words and their rhythms create wonder, and later the wonder turns sharply as the story unfolds and the pieces of the mystery come together.

I hope that the University of South Carolina Press continues to publish Story River Books so we can have more novels like A Question of Mercy.

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

This review is from the January 4, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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