Reviewed by Christopher Margeson
There’s a bit of local lore in Nova Scotia which claims that, try as you might, you will never get more than 60km away from the ocean. This is, as the provincial license plate proudly states, “Canada’s Ocean Playground”; the salted air and dense inland fogs make the sea’s presence felt wherever you go.
That same presence flows just below the surface on every page in Christy Ann Conlin’s new novel, The Speed of Mercy, set to be published by House of Anansi Press on March 23rd, 2021. Conlin accomplishes an impressive balancing act with this book: The Speed of Mercy is simultaneously a page-turning mystery and a deliberately paced, often poetic, meditation on inclusion, ageing, and womanhood. It also reads as a kind of paean to the author’s home province, a novel in which the Atlantic Canadian setting feels like as much of a character as the many memorable humans that populate its pages. This setting that Conlin conjures so vividly in The Speed of Mercy is Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley – where she (and, incidentally, where I) grew up.
The Valley (everyone here will know which valley you mean) is a fertile strip of farmland and small towns running along the southern edge of the Bay of Fundy, a glacial scar scraped out from between basalt and granite ridges. It is a beautiful area, rich in history, and proud, but it has not always held a welcoming attitude toward ‘difference’—the unconventional, the come-from-aways, the outsiders. Conlin evokes and explores this tension by populating her book with just such outsiders, characters written with a radical empathy and an unflinching description of life on the edge of ‘normal’ in a very normative place.
Switching between sections titled Then and Now, The Speed of Mercy tells the story of Stella Maris, who then was a young girl brought back to her father’s Nova Scotian hometown after a tragic accident, and now is a mute woman in her mid-60s living in a long-term residential care facility, and who remembers very little of her past. The mystery around which these two timelines swirl are the traumatic events (somehow connected, we know, to a shadowy organization called Sodality) that brought Stella to the Jericho County Care Centre – and which continue to threaten her even there.
As the story circles around these two timelines to get to the heart of what happened to Stella, we meet a host of other characters on the fringes: Diane, Stella’s best friend and co-resident at the care centre; Cynthia, Stella’s childhood friend, who carries with her a dark secret; Seraphina, who Conlin’s readers may remember from Heave, with her own mental health struggles; and a host of other characters through which Conlin deconstructs our assumptions about life on the edge of the conventional.
In telling this story, Conlin weaves in subtle winks and nods to the real-world culture and landscape of the Annapolis Valley. There are plentiful references to the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, who grew up in Nova Scotia and often evoked the idyllic scenes of her childhood in her poems, and though the names have often been changed it won’t take local readers long to recognize the towns, landmarks, and locales that Conlin’s characters travel through and live in.
One of the most interesting references here, though, is in the title of the novel itself: “The speed of mercy” is taken from a phrase in Flannery O’Connor’s novel The Violent Bear It Away, in which the themes of fate and inherited trauma also leave their mark on the characters’ lives. And while a quote from this writer of Southern Gothic short stories may seem an odd pairing with the snowy, northern landscape of the Annapolis Valley, it does call to mind a local epithet worn less proudly by Nova Scotia: this province was once widely known as the Mississippi of the North due to its history of racial tensions and prejudice.
Whether it’s the well-intentioned but misguided curiosity of the locals when it comes to Mal, the black podcaster from California working to unearth the Nova Scotian roots of the shadowy Sodality, or the patronizing and disabling attitude the head nurse at the care centre takes toward the residents, Conlin doesn’t shy away from exploring the rough edges of the pastoral locations she so beautifully evokes. This, I think, makes that evocation that much richer; for better or worse, it’s what makes the setting of this place ring true.
There is a bit of dialogue early in the novel that stayed in my mind as I read through the rest of it, when Stella’s friend Dianne proclaims that “Words have power. Silence has power. Ain’t nothing we do that don’t have some sort a power over what comes next.” Reading The Speed of Mercy you can’t help but notice that Christy Ann Conlin writes like she really believes in that power, of words and of silence, of who is given a voice and who isn’t.
The Speed of Mercy is certainly a plot-driven page-turner, a thrilling mystery and a beautiful evocation of time and place. It’s also an established writer’s chance to give voice to persons and points-of-view that are often sidelined in Canadian fiction. For a glimpse into the beauty that abides where people so often forget to look, and for a page-turning adventure of a novel, The Speed of Mercy is an easy recommendation.
The Speed of Mercy is published by House of Anansi. It will be launched on March 23, 2021.