The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
One of the supposed benefits of my education was a strong emphasis on languages which, as was then the fashion, included both Latin and Greek. While nurturing the development of a rather intellectual way of speaking within the school, there was a necessary parallel development of a separate street language to minimise the bullying from the rest of the neighbourhood. To this day, I can still switch on the Geordie if required. One of the more pleasing idioms from my classical days was, “To pile Pelion on Ossa.” When the Aloadai were attacking Mount Olympus, they were having problems reaching up so high. Their answer was to take Mount Pelion and pile it on top of Mount Ossa, hoping this would give them the necessary height. Sadly, this epic construction project was a failure, albeit spectacular.
So this brings me to The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (HarperCollins, 2012). This is a very ambitious novel which takes a relatively conventional murder mystery and locates it in Louisiana with a setting in an old plantation estate, preserved as a museum and exploited as an upmarket venue for weddings and social events. A balance therefore has to be struck between a service to local schools in sanitising and demonstrating the circumstances under which slaves worked the cotton fields, and maintaining the colonial mansion and immaculate lawns to provide the right milieu for the upper middle class to continue flaunting their wealth and massaging their egos. A necessarily ironic juxtaposition providing the money to pay for the upkeep of the house and grounds, and to offer employment to many who live in the local community.
The book therefore straddles a number of quite different genres. A murder occurs which starts us off in the mystery category with Caren Gray, the manager of the estate, thrown into the role of amateur detective. She has a daughter and, during the course of the book, Caren Gray finds it necessary to contact the father of the child. This adds an increasingly strong romantic element. In a social context, the book also examines the way in which the cotton industry is now consolidating and discusses the impact this has on local communities. Because of the setting in a colonial estate, a counterpoint emerges as we’re invited to compare how the plantations were run using slaves to the current position of the undocumented workers from Mexico, El Salvador and other sources of willing labour. Indeed, the history of the estate becomes increasingly important as the book progresses so we acquire some more general social comment on racism in both a historical and contemporary genre style. There’s a political element and, of course, because the daughter may have seen or heard more than she should, it’s a thriller.
As a much-practised juggler, I was just about keeping all the balls up in the air as the book progressed, but one more element suddenly appeared. It was at this point, I lost faith in the entire enterprise. The golden rule when writing should always be that simple is best. Although an author can legitimately flesh out the basic bones of plot with the characterisation and detailed descriptions of the milieu, there comes a point when enough is enough. This book is a classic example of piling Pelion on Ossa. Just when you think the giants cannot push their mountain consolidation project any higher, they come up with a new system of buttressing and throw up new earthworks. The problem is that, no matter how high each new set of earthworks, they are never going to arrive at Olympus. So it is with authors. They can keep piling new plot elements into the mix but this, of itself, is not going to make the best book. All the complexity does is prove the author’s lack of confidence in a simple story. There’s a murder. The estate’s manager is pushed into a situation where she has to investigate. The innocent young black boy is accused by the white police. As a single mother, she needs the help of her ex-partner and, together, they must weather the storm as the solution slowly emerges. Obviously motive is important so some history and general background is essential, but what we have here is excessive.
It’s a great shame. The prose is of the highest quality with a multilayered approach. Structurally, the early stages of the book could not be bettered but, as you read on, the author loses her way. The plot grows increasingly diffuse and I gave up caring who was responsible and why. So The Cutting Season goes on to the list of valiant failures. It’s a brave effort but just as the Gods in Olympus were able to look down on the Aloadai as they tried to mount an attack (pun intended), so we can see this as a book that almost made it but missed out completely because, no matter how hard she tried, the author could not close the final gap to arrive at her destination. That said, the quality of the prose demonstrates this is an author to watch for the future. Even though I found this book unsatisfactory does not mean future books will be flawed. I shall be watching for the next book if only for the pleasure of reading the prose.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.