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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review of THE CUTTING SEASON by Attica Locke

And here’s one more book with a twist from the list I posted on Friday:  The Cutting Season by Attica Locke.

3 Stars
Caren Gray manages Belle Vie, a restored plantation in Louisiana, now a tourist attraction. The body of a Latina migrant worker from the adjoining industrial sugarcane farm is found on the estate. Caren is drawn into the investigation of the case which seems to be related to the murder of her great-great-great-grandfather who worked at Belle Vie as both a slave and a free man.

History is very much a character in the novel; it is a palpable presence to which people frequently allude. It soon becomes clear that the past has shaped people’s identities and lives and continues to shape their choices in the present. This is most obviously the case for Caren. There are also parallels between past and present. The poor wages, substandard living conditions, prejudice, and mistreatment experienced by post-Civil War blacks is mirrored to some extent in the wages, living conditions, prejudice, and mistreatment that are the lot of the migrant labourers.

Locke excels at using the plantation to create atmosphere. From the beginning it is clear that this beautiful, apparently civilized setting hides long-buried strife and discord. Belle Vie is “not to be trusted. . . beneath its loamy topsoil, the manicured grounds and gardens, two centuries of breathtaking wealth and spectacle, lay a land both black and bitter, soft to the touch, but pressing in its power” (4).

The book has the requisite suspense and red herrings, but the characterization of the protagonist bothered me. Caren is so very unobservant. As a manager she makes daily tours of the estate, but she is blind to so much that is going on at Belle Vie. She studied law for a couple of years, but she mishandles evidence she discovers and withholds information from investigators, usually for no convincing reason. At the end there is a major revelation concerning her ancestor but she is uninterested in following up on its implications.

There are other flaws in the novel. The police investigators are stereo-typed as incompetent and myopic, as befitting a small town!? There are unanswered questions; for instance, much is made of the victim’s desire to find another home, but no satisfactory explanation is given as to why when her living situation is almost ideal in many ways. The ending is also less than satisfying. We learn that the perpetrator disagrees with the actions of a family member but aided him nonetheless? Furthermore, the final confrontation between Caren and the murderer is staged; it is doubtful that he could arrive at the location before Caren, given the time span involved, and the reasons for some of his behaviour during that confrontation are unclear. Then there are the annoying shifts from direct dialogue to narrated dialogue for no discernible reason.

I admire Locke’s ability to expand the genre of crime fiction by including a theme about the connections between past and present, but I was disappointed with some of the plotting and characterization.