Searching for who we are

by Cynthia Newberry Martin

Under the Mercy Trees book cover

Under the Mercy Trees
by Heather Newton
Harper
2011
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I once stood at my grandfather’s knee, watching him do tricks with rocks. Later I backpacked by myself in France. I married at twenty, became an attorney in a high-powered Atlanta law firm, then the mother of four. With one friend, I walk and talk; with another, I hike mountains and go to clubs in San Francisco. In Mary Gordon’s novella, The Rest of Life, the old woman Paola searches for the wick running through her life that makes her “the same person who was born, was a child, a girl, a young woman, a woman, and now she is old.”

Bertie, however, one of four point-of-view characters in Heather Newton’s debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees, prefers to focus on the mystery of how different we can be:

She pondered it at her kitchen table now. How one man could be many. First young and spirited, worth sampling at any cost. Then old, swaddled in sameness.

Martin, the main character, can be quite different. In New York, he’s a gay man, while at home in North Carolina, he’s the not-gay brother. Around his family, “he seemed to remake himself, squaring his shoulders, losing the give in his limbs.” As a young man, he had a bright future as a playwright; now he drinks too much and is unable to hold a job. In a lovely bit of symmetry, the first chapter, in Martin’s point of view, begins with the word Broken and ends with this sentence:

The image Liza [Martin’s high school sweetheart] had of him bore little resemblance to who he really was, but around her he was his best, most beautiful, and noble self. He was unbroken.

Add to this conundrum that Bertie, Martin’s sister-in-law, believes there might be one self more true than the others. Years ago, she had an affair: “She did it to bring herself back.”

Under the Mercy Trees begins with the disappearance of Martin’s brother Leon. In addition to Martin and Bertie, the other point-of-view characters are Liza and Ivy—the sister who sees ghosts (as well as other more important things). The novel, its four viewpoints allowing the reader to see the insides and outsides of multiple characters, is divided into four parts by newspaper clippings that keep the reader abreast of the search for Leon.

Heather Newton’s writing is tight. It’s also poetic and rich in sensory details, as this sentence in Bertie’s point of view, describing her husband James, shows:

In the ridges of his corduroy coat she could smell his whole week, the smoke of barrels lit to warm searchers, metal from the sling blade he used to cut underbrush as he looked, the single paper-bagged beer she knew he had snuck on his way home, a thing she didn’t begrudge him.

And yet James hid this side of himself—the single beer on the way home—from his wife. In another excerpt, Bertie wonders, “which Leon James was grieving for”:

When they were all younger, Leon was something, with that full head of black hair and smart grin always forming around some tall tale. But as he got older he talked less and less, until his mouth rusted shut like an old mason jar lid.

Like Mary Gordon’s Paola, I’m also someone who searches for the wick. And in Under the Mercy Trees, there’s evidence to support this view that, like Russian nesting dolls, who we were is buried inside of who we are. Nineteen of the forty-one chapters include a compelling drop into the past. Plus, within Ivy, the only first person narrator, the ghosts of her past mingle in her present. Benjamin Percy wrote that true suspense is about the coming together of  “what is outside the characters (whatever intrudes on their lives) and what is inside the characters (whatever they desire that is just out of reach).” In Under the Mercy Trees, an ambitious and assured debut, not only are both of these elements present, but the search for Leon is the perfect physical manifestation of the inner searchings of these characters. Perhaps the more import ant question is not whether there is some wick that connects all of our different selves, but whether who we are on the outside is an accurate reflection of who we are on the inside.

 

Cynthia Newberry Martin is Contrary’s Review Editor.