Book of Mercy by Sherry Roberts
6th Dec 2011
Sherry Roberts‘ second novel follows the plight of Antigone Brown, a pregnant dyslexic vegetarian with a penchant for epic drives (which she calls binge driving) and picking up strays (the two- and four-legged variety) who takes on a small town’s decision to ban books from the high school library.
Until now, the Mercy Study Club was really just a group of bored well-to-do housewives (with powerful husbands) who got together once in a while to set the world to rights – or at least that corner of the world that is Mercy, North Carolina.
One day, however, study club chairperson (and all round busybody) Irene Crump decides to step up the club’s involvement in the education of the youngsters of this one-horse town.
Presenting the study club members with what she deems “inappropriate” books, the decision is taken to bully the high school librarian, Nancy, into removing them all from circulation.
Nancy turns to her good friend Antigone for help, along with Antigone’s mechanic husband Sam, a runaway called Ryder and a young psychic called Star (along with her mother Earthly).
It’s not just Antigone’s name that doesn’t quite fit the conformist, structured environment of Mercy. She runs the only vegetarian restaurant in town and keeps wounded and abandoned deer in something of a small conservation park that Irene derogatorily calls a “tourist trap”.
She is also not afraid to stand up to the women of the Mercy Study Club (the majority of whom have powerful – in the small town sense – husbands) and when she hears of the book banning, that’s exactly what she does.
She understands what it’s like to be unable to unlock the secrets of a book thanks to her severe dyslexia and it’s quite clear that she doesn’t want anyone else suffering the same fate.
What ensues is at times funny and at times sad but what struck me most about this book was the constant threatening undercurrent that the author uses to remind you that the subject being covered is a very serious one.
Censorship is a nasty and insidious tool used by weak “leaders” to control the masses under the guise of shielding an innocent population. This is precisely what Roberts conveys in Book of Mercy.
Although Irene and her gang claim to be sheltering children from the evils of Judy Blume and Harry Potter, they are really protecting their own positions in society by ensuring that their children cannot learn how to question and challenge them by reading books that teach independent thinking.
As funny as parts of the book are (my personal favourite scene involves a dreadful waste of a banana cream pie), it did send a shiver down my spine on more than one occasion at the thought of some of the best books I’ve ever read not being easily available.
The beauty of this book is that, although Roberts is tackling such a serious subject, she does so subtly. It makes you think without grabbing you by the throat and making you listen.
I hope that it will also make you think as much as it made me think and perhaps even provoke a little debate – sure, no one wants children reading Mein Kampf, but where do you draw the line on what is a subversive or damaging book?
Recommended for: Anyone who likes novels that use humour to cover serious subjects
Other recommended reading: Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman has a similar “small town with a dirty secret” feel to it.