The Cutting Season is set at Belle Vie, a former sugar plantation in Louisiana that predates the Civil War. In 2009, it is managed as a museum and venue for conferences and weddings by Caren Gray, who lives on-site with her young daughter, Morgan.
After years away, Caren has returned to the house she grew up in, where she was the cook’s daughter. Her family’s link to Belle Vie can be traced back to her ancestor Jason - a labourer there at the time that slavery was abolished.
The story begins when Caren discovers the body of Inés Avalo on the plantation – one of many immigrants working in fields nearby. One of Caren’s employees, Donovan Isaacs – a young black man with a criminal past – immediately becomes the prime suspect.
But Caren thinks he is being framed. She learns that her boss, Raymond Clancy, is planning to sell Belle Vie, and stumbles into a web of corruption. And when she finds a blood-stained shirt in Morgan’s bedroom, Caren is forced to confront her own past.
The imposing facade of Belle Vie, and its complex legacy, dominates The Cutting Season. ‘Its beauty was not to be trusted,’ Locke remarks in the opening pages, describing the plantation as ‘a place in whose beauty one might find pleasure, pain or labour.’
The disused ‘slave village’ casts a shadow on the natural splendour of Belle Vie’s surroundings, particularly Jason’s Cabin – where Caren’s ancestor lived before his unexplained disappearance, more than a century earlier – and from which an antique cane knife goes missing on the day that Inés is murdered.
As Caren digs deeper, the thread of broken relationships that connects her to both Jason and Inés unravels, leading her to see Belle Vie in a different light.
Attica Locke is a fine storyteller, and - perhaps unsurprisingly given her screenwriting background - The Cutting Season’s suspense-filled plot seems tailor-made for a screen adaptation. This contemporary thriller with flashbacks to a conflicted past touches on race and greed in Obama’s America, bringing the hallmarks of a John Grisham-style blockbuster to bear against a Southern Gothic backdrop.
Despite its promise, however, The Cutting Season doesn’t quite deliver: Locke’s characters and dialogue are never as compelling as her inventive storyline, though her evocation of the plantation is more successful. With time, Locke may develop a stronger literary voice – although her readers may be content for her to continue producing plot-driven fiction with a topical edge.
Recommended for: Lovers of crime and fans of legal drama
Other recommended reading: For another take on the spectre of slavery, try Toni Morrison’s Beloved; John Berendt’s true crime study Midnight in the Garden of Evil, or Sharp Objects, the hard-boiled 2007 début by another rising star of American fiction, Gillian Flynn.