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Winner of the 2016 Alex Award
Best Book of 2015 —Kansas City Star
In this intricate novel of psychological suspense, a fatal discovery near the high school ignites a witch-hunt in a Southeast Texas refinery town, unearthing communal and family secrets that threaten the lives of the town’s girls.
In Port Sabine, the air is thick with oil, superstition reigns, and dreams hang on making a winning play. All eyes are on Mercy Louis, the star of the championship girls’ basketball team. Mercy seems destined for greatness, but the road out of town is riddled with obstacles. There is her grandmother, Evelia, a strict evangelical who has visions of an imminent Rapture and sees herself as the keeper of Mercy’s virtue. There are the cryptic letters from Charmaine, the mother who abandoned Mercy at birth. And then there’s Travis, the boy who shakes the foundation of her faith.
At the periphery of Mercy’s world floats team manager Illa Stark, a lonely wallflower whose days are spent caring for a depressed mother crippled in a refinery accident. Like the rest of the town, Illa is spellbound by Mercy’s beauty and talent, but a note discovered in Mercy’s gym locker reveals that her life may not be as perfect as it appears.
The last day of school brings the disturbing discovery, and as summer unfolds and the police investigate, every girl becomes a suspect. When Mercy collapses on the opening night of the season, Evelia prophesies that she is only the first to fall, and soon, other girls are afflicted by the mysterious condition, sending the town into a tailspin, and bringing Illa and Mercy together in an unexpected way.
Evocative and unsettling, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis charts the downfall of one town’s golden girl while exploring the brutality and anxieties of girlhood in America.
Parssinen follows up The Ruins of Us, her debut, a portrait of a Saudia Arabian family in turmoil, with a less-nuanced tale of extremism, this time in Port Sabine, a Gulf Coast town redolent of "swamp rot and refinery gas." Contributing to the miasma-like atmosphere are factors environmental and moral. As Port Sabine's refinery spews noxious fumes into the air, the discovery of a baby's corpse in a dumpster unleashes a pervasive sense of unease. Soon the town finds itself in the grips of religious fundamentalism, witch hunts, misogyny, and a "mass psychogenic disorder" in which girls lose control of their bodies. At the center of it all is Mercy Louis, a seventh-generation Cajun and star basketball player who was abandoned by her teenaged mother as an infant. She is raised by her grandmother, Maw Maw, a zealot who demands that Mercy, tainted by her supposed "weak blood," be "twice as good as other girls." Enamored of Mercy is Illa Stark, a shy photographer whose mother has never recovered from injuries sustained in a devastating refinery explosion. Mercy's and Illa's respective family dramas and sexual awakenings are nicely drawn, but the surrounding characters fanatics, slimy energy executives, and poetry-spouting boyfriends tend to be two-dimensional and the dialogue occasionally melodramatic. Despite some beautifully eerie touches, Parssinen's combustible mix of Bayou gothic, morality tale, and coming-of-age story never quite ignites.