The Mercy Seat
Elizabeth H. Winthrop
Mr B's review
Mr B’s Christmas Catalogue Review 2018
A powerful novel set during a single day as a young black man, falsely accused of rape, awaits the electric chair at midnight. His sentence sends deep ripples through the conscience of the town. What could be a depressing book is actually extraordinarily moving and uplifting as the light of humanity shines through with the use of multiple voices, from the father dragging his son’s headstone on an ageing mule, to the Chief Prosecutor’s wife preparing the prisoner’s final meal.
As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit.
In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband.
In this exceptionally powerful novel, Elizabeth Winthrop explores matters of justice, racism and the death penalty in a fresh, subtle and profoundly affecting way. Her kaleidoscopic narrative allows us to inhabit the lives of her characters and see them for what they are – complex individuals, making fateful choices we might not condone, but can understand.
‘It takes a brave writer to compose a novel about the execution of an African-American man in the Deep South when the topic has previously been brought to life by authors like Harper Lee and Ernest Gaines. There are multiple possibilities for failure: preachiness, melodrama and bias, to name a few. But Elizabeth H. Winthrop avoids these hazards by writing well, demonstrating once again that while the subject matter is the body of the narrative, the prose itself is the soul and the thing that makes a topic new. . . [The novel] gathers great power as it rolls on propelled by its many voices.’ Tim Gautreaux, New York Times
beautifully crafted — Jane Ciabattari * BBC Culture * an absorbing slice of historical fiction * Good Housekeeping * A heart-rending, devastating read. — Nina Pottell * Prima * This is an atmospheric, subtle and beautifully crafted portrait of a divided community, riven by prejudice. Echoing William Faulkner and Harper Lee, this moving novel has clear contemporary resonance. — Simon Humphreys * Mail on Sunday * Winthrop creates a kaleidoscopic narrative that captures the wildly different perspectives of characters beyond accuser and accused. . . Suspenseful and highly nuanced, Winthrop’s novel raises profound questions about truth and justice * 5 Hot Books, The National Book Review * A multi-layered tale of life, death and the grey pain of grief. And yet, it is not depressing . . . though slow burning, [it] still manages to be explosive * Irish Examiner * A bitingly intelligent writer who infuses otherwise unremarkable moments with bittersweet pathos. * New York Times Book Review * Praise for FIREWORKS:
Winthrop sketches her hapless hero with uncommon charm . . . both he and the reader learn to appreciate anew the ‘non-stories’ that make up life. * Observer * Praise for DECEMBER:
Winthrop is brilliant at depicting the bewildering world and its assault on the senses of a struggling adolescent . . . This extraordinary novel seduces as it also challenges: curiously provoking and offering small flashes of illumination, like matches struck in that dim and meaningful space on the far side of language. — Natalie Sandison * The Times * Totally engrossing from start to finish. Winthrop’s scene building is captivating, her characterization intricately layered, and her ability to build tension both preternatural and Hitchcockian * Ploughshares * Keenly observed . . . richly drawn * New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice * Praise for THE WHY OF THINGS:
With insight, respect and luminous clarity . . . This haunting, shimmering novel reminds us how all of us know our families: with unimaginable intimacy, and hardly at all. — Andrew Solomon Please celebrate Winthrop’s audacious determination to walk through the narrative minefield of this account of an electrocution in the Deep South during the Gothic worst of Jim Crow times. Winthrop redeems her daring by lovely discipline and dignity, by the care she lavishes on each of her rounded characters. The Mercy Seat is a truly bravura performance. — Geoffrey Wolff This taut, deft novel asks us to look, and to look hard, and our willingness is profoundly honoured. — Michelle Latiolais In this spare, taut novel, the separate stories of the people around an execution join together to form a portrait of a town, a mentality, a moment in time. This is a compelling, sorrowful read, deeply perceptive and wonderfully full of grace. — Andrew Solomon It takes a brave writer to compose a novel about the execution of an African-American man in the Deep South when the topic has previously been brought to life by authors like Harper Lee and Ernest Gaines. There are multiple possibilities for failure: preachiness, melodrama and bias, to name a few. But Elizabeth H. Winthrop avoids these hazards by writing well, demonstrating once again that while the subject matter is the body of the narrative, the prose itself is the soul and the thing that makes a topic new . . . [The novel] gathers great power as it rolls on propelled by its many voices. — Tim Gautreaux * New York Times *