The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen
Published by Harper
Publication date: March 10, 2015
Genres: Book Clubs, Coming-of-age, Fiction, Literary
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Take high school sports, an oil refinery explosion, a grandmother ready for the Rapture, and layer in a fetus found in a dumpster and a Purity Ball and you have the world that is The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. Ostensibly, the novel is about Mercy, a high school senior who is one of the best basketball players in the state of Texas, but the events listed create a vortex of religiosity and small-town big-sports emotion that expands to destroy everyone caught in its downward spiral.
Mercy lives and breathes basketball, but also carries the weight of a mother who abandoned her and living with a grandmother, Evelia, who thinks protecting Mercy’s chastity is her life’s work, has visions, and believes the Rapture is coming soon. Mercy knows the only hope she has of any life is to get to her team to State, win, and earn a scholarship somewhere far away from Port Sabine. The celebrity status conferred on her as the best-known athlete in her town is something she’s used to. It’s balanced by her best friend and team mate Annie, a wealthy wild child who accepts Mercy rigid religious beliefs and provides her with a space to breathe. All of that is strained, when the body is discovered and the town’s young women, even the revered basketball team, go from pillars of virtue and hometown heroes to whores and possible murderers. Annie’s father, the wealthy manager of the refinery that went up in flames decides to resuscitate his image and shut down whispers about Annie as the possible murderer by holding a Purity Pledge party for her. Mercy’s tacit approval drives a rift between the two girls who have always lived as one on and off the court.
Small towns make up with drama what they lack in size and Port Sabine is no exception. Author Keija Parssinen writes The Unraveling of Mercy Louis with a ferocious authenticity that brings to life the sounds of packed stands at a game, the smells of a town dominated by a refinery’s chemicals, and the thrumming energy of teenagers and hormones. I knew from the opening paragraph there’d be no break in the pace of this story:
Something will be lit on fire today. Noses and windows will get busted. Girls will cry. It’s the last day of school, and endings are always extreme.
What was more than I hoped, is all the ancillary stories Parssinen conveys. A mother injured in the accident, a quiet girl who sees much but says little, a long-gone mother whose story isn’t told, a coach willing to do almost anything for the success of her star player. These characters fill in the outline that is Mercy. Which is not to say there is anything lacking in Parssinen’s creation of this beautiful, fighter of a girl. A girl so sure on the court, but whose grandmother’s extremism has her terrified of life off it. Even the most chaste teenage longing uncorks a fear in Mercy that’s painful to read. So much rides on her every choice—whether as a town’s savior or a soul fit to ascend to heaven. The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is evocative reading about a young woman wound tight, her voice fierce, but fraying.
For more great girl athlete reading I highly recommend The Falconer by Dana Czapnik.
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