Winthrop’s latest novel, The Mercy Seat, publishes June 14th.
As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit.
In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband.
In this exceptionally powerful novel, Elizabeth Winthrop explores matters of justice, racism and the death penalty in a fresh, subtle and profoundly affecting way. Her kaleidoscopic narrative allows us to inhabit the lives of her characters and see them for what they are – complex individuals, making fateful choices we might not condone, but can understand.
Set against the backdrop of WWII, with themes of race, injustice and community, The Mercy Seat is an emotionally charged read. When I first started reading this novel, I was thrown by how quickly the perspectives changed, I wondered how I was ever going to settle into the novel, and get to know the characters, if I only heard from them for a few pages at a time. Little did I know just how powerful this snap shot narration would be. With a constant change of perspective every few pages, it was vital Winthrop was, not only able to convey the progression of this plot but also, able to convey the emotion of each character, and to my delight, this was achieved. The writing, at times, is so beautiful and thought-provoking. Not only does this novel shine a light on the prejudices rife in Louisiana in 1943, but it also raises questions on the use of the death penalty.
It isn’t obvious at first, but as the novel progresses, you see how each person’s perspective is connected and this brings the plot together nicely. You see those who are certain of Will’s guilt, and those believe in his innocent, those gearing up to watch the electrocution, and those who believe it’s wrong to sentence a man to death.
The strongest perspective in this novel, for me, came from Will’s father, Frank – you can just feel that Frank has had a hard life, a black man in Louisiana in 1943, knowing his son is due to die at midnight, trying his best to get back in time to see him one last time before it’s too late. I can’t even put into word how much I felt Frank’s narration in my heart.
There’s no denying this novel is, in places, exceptionally powerful, thought-provoking and heartfelt but…. of the nine perspectives, only two of them were black. A story of a possible wrongful conviction, wrought with racial tension, a black man is about to be electrocuted – a novel that promotes discussion on justice and race, you can’t help but see the imbalance in perspectives. Interestingly, Will’s narration didn’t feel at the centre of this plot. A young man alone in his cell waiting for death with nothing but acceptance to keep him company – acceptance that death is coming, yet, I never really felt like this novel was Will’s story. Now, it’s worth mentioning this is a white female author writing the perspective of a young black male facing the death penalty, so you have to allow for a bit of leeway in the narration; I can imagine Will’s, and Frank’s, perspectives were incredibly hard to write, and Winthrop did an amazing job writing them, Frank’s in particular. But, one has to wonder, this novel is about how a community reacts to a black man sentenced to death, why is it so heavily focused on how white people feel about this potential injustice? They’re not on the receiving end of this racial prejudice, yet their perspective on this racial prejudice is dominant….
The ending of this novel came as a real surprise, it’s an open ending, but a powerful one, one that leaves you questioning law and justice. To end the novel this way was a very clever move by Winthrop, because it ensure you stay thinking about it.
Overall, I do recommend this novel, it is highly heartfelt and very well-written. It is intentionally slow-paced, so you have time to process the emotions you’ll feel as you read it, I just wish the character creation was a little more diverse.