The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh 
Spiegel & Grau • $26 • ISBN 9780812995206
On sale March 11, 2014

You'll never think of small-town life the same way again after reading Laura McHugh's chilling debut. Part "Twin Peaks," part Tana French, the novel opens just after the body of 18-year-old Cheri has been found stuffed into a tree trunk. Lucy Dane may have been the troubled Cheri's only friend, and after turning up some disturbing evidence she becomes determined to track down Cheri's killer—especially since her own mother's disappearance some 15 years before has still never been solved. As Lucy's quest proceeds, she begins to unearth some of the town's darkest secrets, some of which involve her own family.

There's very little black and white here, just murky shades of gray. Because McHugh's story and characters are so morally complex, the rules of genre fiction seem suspended, making the reader uneasy about what the outcomes for the characters might be.  And the book is grounded in a very real depiction of rural life, especially in the South, where outsiders are treated with varying degrees of suspicion.

Mr. Girardi had been doomed from the start for the simple fact that he wasn't a native, but he made it worse every time he opened his mouth. He didn't know that a haint was a ghost or that puny meant sick or that holler was the way we said hollow. Ah! he said when he figured it out. So a holler is like a valley! When a kid in class welcomed him to God's country, Mr. Girardi wondered aloud why the churches in God's country were outnumbered by monuments to the devil. It's true: the spiny ridge of Devil's Backbone, the bottomless gorge of Devil's Throat, the spring bubbling forth from the Devil's Eye—his very anatomy worked into the grit of the landscape. Mr. Girardi spent an entire class period comparing Henbane to paintings of hell. The land was rocky and gummed with red clay, the thorny underbrush populated by all manner of biting, stinging beasts. The roads twisted in on themselves like intestines. The heat sucked the breath from your chest. Even the name, he'd said before being fired for showing us a Bosch, which was full of boobs, Henbane. Another name for nightshade—the devil's weed. He's everywhere. He's all around you.

 

I'd felt sorry for Mr. Girardi because he didn't understand why everyone treated him like a trespasser. Tourists came through on the river, but strangers rarely moved to town, and they naturally aroused suspicion. Even though I'd lived in Henbane all my life—had been born in the clapboard house my grandpa Dane built not a mile from the North Fork River—no one could forget that my mother was a foreigner, that she had come from someplace else, even if that place was only Iowa. 

 

What are you reading this week?

 

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