Book Quote:

“Later, two cops would ask, more than once, how it was she didn’t see her. She could have offered up any number of theories: the dirt and mud on the woman’s back, the distance of twenty or thirty yards between the fence and Caren’s perch behind the driver’s seat, even her own layman’s assessment that the brain can’t possibly process what it has no precedent for. But none of the words came.

I don’t know, she said.

She watched one of the cops write this down.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (MAR 22, 2014)

The past and the present are inextricably bound, and history is examined, re-examined, and refined within the context of a changing world of ideas, new evidence, and reform. Attica Locke demonstrated this in her first crime book, Black Water Rising, (nominated for an Orange Prize in 2009). Once again, she braids controversial social and historical issues with an intense and multi-stranded mystery.

Locke artfully informs Cutting Season with the dark corners of our nation’s past and the ongoing prejudices and failures to live up to the enlightened ideals of equality and justice. Her fiction tells the truth through an imaginative storyline, and she enfolds these issues and more in this lush historical novel of murder, racism, and family. The title of the book refers to the season of sugarcane cutting.

Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a pre-civil war sugar cane plantation, Belle Vie, sits on eighteen acres of land, owned by the affluent Clancy family. The Clancys are descendants of William Tynan, who was hired by the federal government after the civil war to oversee the plantation. Tynan did such an outstanding job, he was eventually deeded the land.

Converted to a tourist attraction/historic preserve, with restored slave quarters and dramatic re-enactments of plantation life, Bell Vie is also a favorite setting for weddings and other festivities. Caren Gray, a single mother, manages everything at Bell Vie– the grounds, events, and personnel. Caren also has ties to the early descendants of the plantation, a complex history that unfolds gradually and evocatively. She is the great-great-great granddaughter of a slave named Jason who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and was never found.

Abutting the land to the west sits 500 acres of actively farmed sugar cane, also owned by the Clancy family and run by the Groveland Corporation. Since Groveland started managing the land, the families that worked there for generations were pushed out and replaced by migrant workers.

The book starts off with a bang, just like Locke’s earlier book did. On the border between Bell Vie and the sugarcane land, an employee stumbles on a murdered women, a migrant worker. When the local sheriff prematurely accuses a Bell Vie employee with a criminal past, Caren resolves to solve the crime herself. She subsequently learns that there have been sinister shenanigans involving Groveland, including support of the budding political interests of Raymond Clancy.

The atmospherics and setting of this novel, as well as the increasing tension and artful story, keep the reader attentive. Locke is not just skillful, but fragrant in describing the landscape of this largely provincial community. Her prose is sensuous and plump, and the visuals are ripe and resonant.

“…beneath its loamy topsoil…two centuries of breathtaking wealth and spectacle—a stark beauty both irrepressible and utterly incapable of even the smallest nod of contrition—lay a land both black and bitter, soft to the touch, and pressing in its power. She should have known that one day it would spit out what it no longer had use for, the secrets it would no longer keep.”

Like Locke’s first book, the plot is multi-faceted, with subplots often taking center stage and progressively weaving into the main intrigue. The theme centers on the uneasy link between the past and present, and how they must be reconciled. Caren’s desire to protect her child and expose corruption across echoes of time struck a deep chord in me.

The pacing is initially taut, although the characterizations gravitate toward standard. I was a bit disappointed in the relationship between Caren and her ex, Eric, because Black Water Rising’s main character, Jay Porter was so arresting—tilted, ambiguous, and most of all, unpredictable. The action between Caren and Eric is stilted, and feels convenient to the arc of the story. However, Caren’s voice is sensitive, intimate, and tenderly portrayed, despite being easily anticipated.

As the novel progressed toward the climax, Locke veered to formula. Perhaps she tried too hard to please readers of conventional genre. Cutting Season lumbered as it neared the final moments, becoming too ungainly and stitched together. The past and present fall into place too readily, yet I appreciate what Locke was trying to do in the juxtaposition of time and circumstance. Her intent was poetic; she strove for equanimity, but it got too exorbitant and contrived.

Despite these complaints, Locke’s talents are evident on every page. Locke’s sensual approach to language and narrative filters her flaws, mitigating them. The joy of reading comes from being absorbed in Bell Vie and the sumptuous layering of story. There’s a fine line between writing platitudes and conveying an awareness of racial issues and conflicts. Locke is generally nuanced, but she occasionally turned toward heavy-handedness, especially toward the finale.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 172 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (September 17, 2013)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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March 22, 2014 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Mystery/Suspense, Reading Guide, US South, y Award Winning Author