(This is part of a TLC Book Tour)
Belle Vie is a plantation, in the south of Louisiana, where the past exploitation and suffering of slaves are still a permanent, haunting presence all through the estate. The recent history of the place is made of better events, with couples getting married there, and tourists coming by buses to visit and watch the historical play –although a much sanitised version of the slavery era, one written in sweat and blood.
‘Belle Vie was a cipher, really, a place in whose beauty one might find pleasure or pain, leisure or labor. People saw, in its iced columns, in the magnolias and aged oaks, what they wanted to see, what their own history told them to.’
For Caren Gray, working as the manager at Belle Vie and living on the estate, it is both pleasure and pain, leisure and labor. What she sees in it, every day, is made of good memories of her childhood mixed with the uncertainty of the future, hers and her daughter’s. A future she is not entirely ready to face yet. Her past of growing up at Belle Vie was also both good and bad: her mother was the cook but her father was non-existent, a living ghost that she met only once, when she was 12 or so. And now, Caren is repeating the pattern with her own 9-year old daughter, Morgan, who doesn’t get to see her dad very often. Also, Caren’s great-great-great grandfather had been a slave, on the same plantation, but he had disappeared without anyone ever knowing exactly what had happened to him.
Everything changes for the worse when, one morning, the dead body of a young woman is found, on the grounds of Belle Vie. The gruesome discovery and the investigation that ensues stir up the peace and quiet of the place, bringing to the surface some fragile, barely hidden fears and emotions, even waking up the past and its ghosts. The new tension that arises acts on everyone: on Caren, who feels her daughter knows more about the murder than she tells, but also because the past starts resurfacing in many ways around her; on the detectives, Lang and Bertrand, who focus their attention on Caren and one other suspect at Belle Vie, while seemingly ignoring everyone at Groveland, the corporation that neighbours Belle Vie, and where the victim had been working; on the workers of the plantation, who fear the place might be up for sale and thus wonder what is awaiting them in this bad economy; on the Clancys, owners of Belle Vie, from the old father who was always good to the staff, to his two sons, Raymond who has political aspirations that might hurt Belle Vie, and Bobby who doesn’t have much ambition except, probably, the good of the estate and its people.
Attica Locke’s second novel, following the well-received and Orange Prize-nominated Black Water Rising, is a rich, atmospherically charged story about complex characters living in a complex world where we try to embellish the past, to make it suitable and less bloody than it was; but the past of Belle Vie (and of every other violent history) can’t hide behind its present, because the blood always finds a way to seep through the fabric of time. Locke’s powerful writing subtly builds the tension between past and present, but also between the characters and even within their own, personal turmoil; the emotions depend on how each reader will connect to the characters, and how they’ll interpret what is there or not. Locke doesn’t tell you how to react or what to feel; the emotions are always right there under the surface, as if floating under a sheet of thin ice. Attica Locke prefers to let the ice melt on its own instead of breaking it; she slowly reveals what is really hidden. And then, we understand better the past. As for the present that tries to undermine the past, maybe we’ll understand it someday.
You can visit Attica Locke on her website. She was born in 1974, a native of Houston (TX) she now lives in Los Angeles (CA). After many years as a Hollywood and TV screenwriter for Paramount, Warner Bros, Disney and a few others, she wrote her first book, Black Water Rising. It was nominated for different awards, like the Orange Prize, an Edgar Award and the NAACP Image Award.
The Cutting Season is published by Harper Collins, under the new line of books chosen by Dennis Lehane.