Caren Gray had every opportunity to get away from Belle Vie, the Louisiana plantation where she grew up and where her family has served in one capacity or another for generations. Yet when a brief stint in law school and a not-so-brief relationship didn’t work out, this monument to a long-dead past—or, to be more accurate, to a version of the past made palatable for tourist—called Caren back, and she moved onto the grounds to work as manager. Caren’s uneasy tranquility with the life she’s made for her and her daughter, Morgan, is disrupted when the body of a worker from the neighboring sugar cane field is found lying face down near the plantation’s slave quarters.
The Cutting Season, Attica Locke’s second novel, uses this crime as a jumping-off point to explore the idea that history never leaves us. We can try to run away from it or put a glossy sheen over it, but the real story is always there. In this case, the real story quite literally emerges from the grave, crying out to be told. The telling of the truth may not change anything, but still, it seems right to know. And in this story, as in many a crime novel, knowing the truth means justice can be served, and injustice avoided.
The thing about history is that it remains with us not just in the stories that need to be told but in our very selves. Times may change, but human nature does not. Caren, living at Belle Vie, is constantly reminded of the time when her ancestors were enslaved, living in tiny quarters that she can hardly bear to enter but that are now an exhibit for tourists. Yet just on the other side of the fence from these museum pieces, sugar cane is being cut by undocumented immigrants who live in tiny mobile homes and must submit to whatever injustices their foreman metes out because they have no way to seek recourse. And in the distance, away from the fields, the owners keep their hands clean and manage their affairs with an eye to profit and power, without much thought for the people at the bottom of the power structure who’ll be affected by their decisions.
As you can see, this is not a crime novel that can be treated as a mere diversion, a weekend thriller to be torn through in pursuit of a satisfying resolution. It’s a book with a lot on its mind. It is, however, also an effective suspense novel with a more than ample supply of thrills. The characters are sufficiently well-rounded, and the plot is satisfying, although some readers might wish for a tidier resolution. (I am not such a reader—the ambiguity in this ending seemed honest, and I appreciate that.)
I did feel that the novel was a little too long; the middle dragged a bit, but it picks up pretty quickly. I also got frustrated with Caren sometimes because she made choices that just seemed altogether misguided. Some of my frustration probably arises from the fact that, as a white woman, I’ve been taught to assume that law enforcement is on my side and that if you cooperate, you don’t have anything to worry about. I know intellectually that that isn’t always the case, but it would still be my first impulse. As a black woman, and one with some training in the law, Caren’s impulses are different—and perhaps justifiably so, especially given what happens to one character who does go along with the police. Yet there were other times when Caren needlessly put herself in danger or made assumptions that seemed obviously false. I suppose, however, lead characters who are always sensible and safe don’t provide much scope for the thrills necessary to a thriller. And in the grand scheme of things, Caren’s sometime misguided behavior didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of the story or my liking of her as a character.
Locke’s first novel, Black Water Rising, was nominated for the Edgar Award and the NAACP Image Award and shortlisted for the Orange Prize. I haven’t read that novel, but Jenny was a fan. I can’t say how this book compares to her earlier one, but I can say that this book is solid enough to show that Locke has potential for a long career in crime writing. (And I have to say, I’m relieved to find a crime writer who’s writing good standalone books. Not every crime novel needs to be in a series.)