Award-winning author Alissa York’s first novel is a haunting and masterful exploration of how passions of the spirit and the flesh can overwhelm us, and even come to inhabit the ground beneath our feet. Divided into two parts, Mercy pairs a single year in the past with a single night in the present, as they unfold in the town of Mercy, Manitoba, and in the neighbouring black spruce bog.
In 1948, a dedicated priest named August Day arrives in Mercy to take over from Father Rock, who has passed away. Although Father Day is young, the bishop has seen fit to let him take over the parish, and August feels he is fulfilling his years of devotion, study and struggle -- at last being able to serve God as alter Christus, or another Christ. The first service he is to perform in his new church is the marriage of Thomas Rose, the town butcher, to Mathilda Nickels, the orphaned niece of the church housekeeper.
Thomas Rose is a good man who waited years to express his love for Mathilda. And when Mathilda accepted his proposal, he was sure that their life together would bring them both joy, though in truth he knew little about his betrothed. Mathilda grew up in a Catholic orphanage and has since been living with her aunt Vera at St. Mary’s; she has not explored the world beyond the realm of her religious devotion, and approaches her wedding day with a mix of fear and dread. But when her eyes meet those of Father Day at the ceremony, Thomas seems to dissolve beside her and she feels physical passion for the first time in her life. As of that moment, August and Mathilda will only have eyes, and hearts, for each other.
Over the coming weeks, the young bride spends more and more time at St. Mary’s, caring for her ailing aunt and taking over the woman’s cleaning duties, but also savouring her brief moments with Father Day. Her marriage remains unconsummated, and her lust for the priest grows to fever pitch, as does his for her -- fuelled not only by the secrets they share in the confessional, but by the fiery text of the Song of Songs. When they do unite, it seems to mark the end of their secret relationship… but the child Mathilda carries away from the encounter assures us their story is not over. Rather, it is yet another thread to add to the tapestry of unspoken stories underpinning Mercy itself, and one that will affect the town’s psyche for decades to come.
Half a century later, another sort of preacher comes to Mercy -- a womanizing widower who wants to develop the black spruce bog on the edge of town and build a religious camp. Reverend Carl Mann is fairly confident of success, having taken up with Mayor Lavinia Wylie, but worries about the well-publicized protests of a woman known as Bog Mary, who has lived her entire life in the heart of the bog. He heads off to confront her and ends up lost and hurt, but Mary uses her natural remedies and knowledge to heal not only his wounds but his broken spirit.
A dark yet compassionate novel, Mercy rivals the fiction debuts of Anne Michaels, Ann-Marie MacDonald and Gail Anderson-Dargatz. Alissa York brings to life a tale of misguided love and damaged souls with language of incredible clarity and intensity.