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Review of ‘The Cutting Season’ by Attica Locke

September 24, 2012 Leave a comment

The Cutting Season’ by Attica Locke

Published by HarperCollins (Allen & Unwin in New Zealand,) October 2012

RRP $36.99

ISBN 978 1 84668 803 4

eISBN 978 1 84765 850 0

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Cutting Season’ is Attica Locke’s ambitious second novel following her well-received, Orange Prize nominated, first book ‘Black Water Rising.’ It undoubtedly falls within the crime fiction genre – it is the first title in the Dennis Lehane crime imprint at HarperCollins – but it comes with a serious take on slavery and immigration in American history and culture, and a quality and style of writing that puts it firmly in the ‘literary’ canon.

Located in and around the antebellum sugar cane plantation of Belle Vie – now a tourist attraction – the novel centres on its manager, Caren Gray. Locke weaves together multiple strands in the book’s 400 pages. There is a recent murder, and perhaps an older one too; there are descendants of the original owners of Belle Vie who regard themselves as ‘having done right’ by their black slaves, and descendants of those slaves who still feel robbed and oppressed; there are complex families involving children, separation and loss, both modern and ancient; and there are today’s industrial farming conglomerates and illegal Mexican cane cutters, mirroring the plantation owners and black slaves of generations ago.

Caren discovers the murder, and it is this incident and its consequences that drive the novel right from the start. Locke keeps the tension up throughout, keeping the reader guessing, and cleverly using minor characters to unlock key aspects of the plot.

Locke’s cast are what you might call in a movie ‘stock characters.’ Locke is also a screenwriter, and it may be that this has influenced the way she has created her characters in this book. Caren Gray herself, for example, is little too weary and passive to be completely believable. There is the older black woman who runs the kitchen, who has seen it all; the hard done by younger employee with a minor criminal record for whom Caren has sympathy and feels has a good heart; the unpleasant neighbouring estate manager who…but let me stop there, before I give something away. Suffice to say Locke’s characters are not exactly subtle, but they work effectively in a story of this nature.

Locke has also worked very hard – perhaps too hard – to mirror past events in the present. Almost every aspect of the story has a parallel strand in the past. I found this over the top; it just wasn’t necessary to do this with absolutely everything, as if the symbolism and history repeating itself lesson needed to be hammered home. Attica, just hold off a little; we get it.

Thankfully Locke does not jump around in time, or shift the point of view away from Caren. I was greatly relieved when I realised we were not suddenly going to find ourselves in 1880, hearing about what happened then through the voice of an ex-slave. The story is told straight, strictly through Caren’s point of view – in the third person – over the course of a week during the sugar cane cutting season. Because the complexities of the story are all about Caren’s personal and family history, how she finds out aspects of it she was previously unaware of, as well as her part in solving the murder, this approach works perfectly. Remaining firmly with Caren’s point of view means the reader understands things – or not – as Caren does, which is a very satisfying approach to storytelling.

‘The Cutting Season’ is perhaps a little long, and some sections seemed to drag. The mechanics of getting from the gate to the house, or the library to the slave quarters, in the dark happened once or twice too often, and some of the interactions with Morgan, Caren’s daughter, didn’t quite ring true for a nine year old.

Attica Locke has written an interesting crime thriller that is a cut above most. It has context and history, an almost pitch perfect point of view – Caren’s  – and a murderer whose identity keeps you guessing. Locke also resists tying everything up nicely, or giving her characters what they really want – and she does well to sustain the idea that, perhaps, they don’t even know what they want. It takes courage for a writer to work a story this way.

Although there is a sense that Locke has tried too hard in places, ‘The Cutting Season’ brings together contemporary social and cultural comment, recent American history, and the complexities of modern family life, with a classic crime whodunnit. Overall, despite its flaws, I’d recommend it.

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