I reviewed Attica Locke’s debut novel Black Water Rising back in 2014 and wasn’t particularly impressed at the time. The Cutting Season, her second novel is a more accomplished and enjoyable crime novel.
Almost all the action of The Cutting Season takes place in a historic Louisiana mansion called Belle Vie, once a working sugar plantation but now a tourist attraction and wedding venue. The general manager is an African-American single mother called Caren Gray. Caren was born in Belle Vie, her mother was the cook and as a child, she played with the Clancy brothers, now the plantation owners. She left Belle Vie to study law in New Orleans, but after dropping out of law school and a failed relationship, she returned to her childhood home. What was supposed to be a temporary situation for Caren and her nine year old daughter Morgan, has become permanent and four years on she is ambivalent about her place of work, but sees no way of leaving.
The action kicks in fast as Caren, on an inspection of the grounds, finds a dead body on the edge of the plantation. The murder victim is a migrant Hispanic woman who works in the neighbouring sugar cane fields. Caren is terrified, this is after all, not just her place of work, but her home but things become more complicated when she discovers that Morgan seems to know more about the murder than she is letting on.
Once the crime is under investigation, Locke gradually widens the plot. What was one of Caren’s workers – Donovan – doing at Belle Vie on the night of the murder? Does the fact that the Clancy’s then announce the sale of Belle Vie have anything to do with the crime that has occurred on their land? And what does this all have to do with Caren’s ancestors who worked the land at Belle Vie as slaves?
As the trajectory of the novel deepens and darkens, Caren comes to realise that she may be more involved in this than she first realised and that to escape her history, she must first understand and acknowledge it. Who does Belle Vie, this relic of Louisiana’s antebellum past, really belong to? The white people who own it, or the back people who built it and made it what it is?
The Cutting Season is a relatively solid crime thriller which subtly brings in themes of slavery, ownership and history without belabouring the point. For such a fecund narrative however, it does lack tension and you’ll guess who is behind the murder long before Caren does.
Caren is an engaging main character but is at times quite passive and the predictable reappearance of Eric, Morgan’s father and her lost love, is a distracting sub-plot.
The book works best when exploring its plantation pageantry and the commodification of the darkest days of America’s history. The juxtaposition of the plight of the migrant workers on the other side of the fence is nicely done, with Belle-Vie’s staff too busy with the recreation of historic slavery to notice that modern-day slavery is alive and well in the fields surrounding their place of work.
Attica Locke writes with insight about Southern racial and class nuances and is expert at exploring apparently benign settings where long-buried secrets are just waiting to erupt through the veneer of respectability. Using the crime thriller as a framework for much more ambitious and atmospheric fiction is a good move, reminding us of the genre’s potential to go well beyond simple entertainment.
The Cutting Season is genuinely thought-provoking, I just wish the thriller aspect of the book had been tighter.
I read The Cutting Season as part of Diverse December
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 298
NUMBER REMAINING: 448
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!