One of the weirder books I've read this year. Set in Port Sabine, an oil town on the Gulf of Mexico that seems to be modeled on Port Arthur, Texas, Parssinen's novel is an eerie and unsettling look at a life shaped by sports, religion, and most of all, lies.
Mercy Louis is the star player on her high school basketball team. She lives with her grandmother, whose brand of religion is a lot bigger on eternal suffering than it is on grace. Her strict morals have been pounded into Mercy's head so hard for so long, her grandmother doesn't need to be physically present for Mercy to hear her voice, judging her actions and warning her of the consequences.
So instead of chasing boys, Mercy has cultivated a close relationship with her best friend, Annie. Annie's behavior isn't always in line with Mercy's beliefs, and eventually something will have to give. It may not be possible for Mercy to live up to all of her grandmother's expectations—and trying may cause her to lose her grip on reality.
Parssinen's book would probably be cathartic for a reader who escaped a fundamentalist background. She does a great job capturing the kind of conservative Christian culture in which girls are blamed for boys' lack of self-control and taught their only value is an intact hymen. For those of us who believe women have intrinsic value unrelated to their sexuality, the traditions (and the assumptions behind them) of Mercy's community are downright chilling.
I have to admit, I struggled with this one a bit as I read it, because I felt like there were about five too many loose ends, and I could never be sure which parts of the narration I could trust. However, now that I've spent some time pondering it, I see how much there was to chew on despite the vagueness. There's a lot going on here—I haven't even mentioned, for example, that there's a second narrator, or that a bunch of girls in the town develop tics and twitches a la Salem circa 1692. And I've been purposely skirting any reference to the grisly discovery made by a gas station cashier taking a break behind the store.
See what I mean? It's a lot to pack into one 300-page novel. But if you're in the mood for something a little creepy, if you enjoy stories of religion run amok, if you're looking for a book that will make you see feminist issues with fresh eyes, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis should have a place on your list.