Attica Locke’s second novel opens with the discovery of a murder and concludes with the solving of that crime. The identification of the killer is however secondary here to the setting, which in itself makes the murder a consequence.
Belle Vie is a historic Louisiana plantation house turned museum & high end event venue. Caren Gray is both manager and descendant of the estate’s former slaves. Early one morning the body of a migrant woman from the neighbouring big corporate cane fields is found on the estate. For Caren that brings layers of trouble.
But as I said, The Cutting Season is barely about whodunit. There are the usual clues, false leads, obtuse cops, rogue reporters etc but on this Locke hangs a deep picture of recent and historic American south. It is, inevitably, a picture of racism.
There are some brutal details in apparent throwaway asides here:
“She’d voted for him on last year’s election, even though she’d never seen the man in person. He’d actually run uncontested, but it was 2008, and she’d felt weird about leaving one of the spaces blank. She didn’t want to lose her say on a technicality. She’d gone over that ballot three or four times, standing alone in the booth, tracing a finger under the first line, the word President ‘ (p35)
Throughout The Cutting Season Attica Locke reminds us of how the past continues to inform the present. On a personal level Caren clashes with Belle Vie ‘s cook, a job here mother once held. Her childhood friend on the estate was the white owner’s son and the Clancy family kindness to the Grays is overt. Kindness as the whitefolk see it. Or kindness as the rich folk view it, for the racial aspect here is almost indistinguishable from a class aspect.
There are plots within plots here, the young actor in Belle Vie’s historical playlets who wants a true black history to be shown (‘a story to put to rest that “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” mess for good’); or the brutal overseer of the migrant workforce on the neighbouring farm, and the false contrast of historic Belle Vie and modern corporate Groveland Farms. And there’s a crucial historical coincidence. Inés Avalo probably wasn’t the first murder at Belle Vie. Sometime in the 1870s during the Reconstruction a former slaves named Jason disappeared. His great great granddaughter is Caren Gray. The story young Donovan wants to tell at Belle Vie is Jason’s story & that of the black sherif who investigated it.
Without spoilers, the discoveries all this reveal are both predictable and surprising. The quotidian details and pointed asides are perhaps the same. I’m not a black American so sensations such as Caren’s election anxiety are new to me, but maybe familiar to others?
The pull of the place on it’s residents is important. Locke uses it to show why many former slaves stayed after emancipation, how those who worked the land, then the house, remained tied to “the true pull of family, and the impossibility of escaping our bonds, or ever truly forgetting where we came from”
Or as Caren did, returned. The reporter Owens calls her on this:
“You one of those who never went back?”
He was speaking of New Orleans, of course.
Katrina too, resonates in this world. Raymond Clancy justifies his political ambition through it as much as his black employees fear the local consequence: the sale of their livelihood.
Ultimately Attica Locke uses two murders to reflect on two societies that have too much that is bad in common. The slaves and ex-slaves of Belle Vie or the migrant undocumented workforce of Groveland all suffer under their field and house bosses. The staff of contemporary Belle Vie are still under the whim of the owners the Clancy family.
As a review in The Guardian of Locke’s third novel the political crime novel Pleasantville notes, the near history of Locke’s settings gives us pause. We see here, tangentially, the thrill of the Obama presidency for Caren Gray but we are reminded at the same time of the disappointments to come. We see in Jason the joy of emancipation, the desire to work & build a home, but we know what comes next. This may be the universal dichotomy of historical fiction, but the powerful extremes Locke chooses emphasise the echoes of then in now.
The Cutting Season is a simple thriller with rich political nuance. It shines light where many are reluctant and doesn’t often flinch. Attica Locke is an author who makes me think as much as she entertains me.