Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wednesday, January 15, 2014: Maximum Shelf: The Weight of Blood


Spiegel & Grau: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

Spiegel & Grau: Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

Spiegel & Grau: Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

Spiegel & Grau: Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

The Weight of Blood

by Laura McHugh

"That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body." So opens Laura McHugh's delightfully and darkly disturbing debut novel, The Weight of Blood. The town of Henbane is agitated because it is so good at keepings its secrets--and bodies are so easy to hide in the twisted, wooded Ozark Mountains.

The story begins with the first-person perspective of 18-year-old Lucy Dane. Lucy has it pretty good: she has a reliable best friend, a loving relationship with her father, and neighbors who make up an extended family of sorts. And she's just begun working in her uncle's store, where she gets to rub elbows with the sexy Daniel. But Lucy is troubled by the disappearance of her sort-of friend Cheri, a developmentally disabled schoolmate whose freshly dead body was only recently discovered--a year after she went missing. She's also still troubled by the unexplained disappearance of her mother, Lila, who walked out of the house carrying a handgun and nothing else when Lucy was a year old.

The perspective then shifts to that of Lila herself as a young woman, newcomer to the Danes' hometown of Henbane. Henbane is almost a character unto itself, insular, suspicious and largely unmarked by passing time. For a fee, residents can avoid a "city burial" (embalmment and the involvement of the authorities) in favor of a private grave-digging service. And the local lawyer will advise you not to trust local police until you find out who's related to whom. It is anything but a friendly destination for a damaged teenager like Lila, who immediately runs up against the Dane brothers: the older Crete, who runs several businesses including a farm and a store, and his little brother, Carl, who becomes her husband before she turns 19. Superstitions have her labeled a witch before she's unpacked her few belongings.

Through Lila's eyes, the reader will find out slightly more about her background than Lucy knows, but Lila works hard to remain a mystery to both the reader and Henbane locals, including Carl. The perspectives continue to alternate. While Lucy keeps the reader up to date on current goings-on, it is through Lila that we begin to learn the ugly secrets that Henbane keeps. Other characters, too, get occasional chapters told from their point of view (in omniscient third person; only Lila and Lucy get first-person treatment), and one of the strengths of The Weight of Blood is that its engaging, complex, fully wrought characters extend beyond its protagonists. Lucy's best friend, Bess, and Bess's mother, Gabby (who was, in turn, best friend to Lila); Carl and Crete; the love interest, Daniel; a surrogate grandmother; and a local drug dealer all get sensitive handling and character development. But it is the measured building of tension and the careful doling out of hints of evil that star, as Lucy's coming-of-age experience brings the classic bildungsroman to meet the gritty thriller.

While helping Daniel clean out an old trailer belonging to her uncle, Lucy discovers a clue: a lost item that she knows used to belong to Cheri, because Lucy gave it to her. Next, Bess overhears a reference that she shouldn't have. With Daniel's cautious support, Lucy begins to look into Cheri's death, and the matter of where she spent that unaccounted-for year. But, of course, in a town this small, where everyone recognizes headlights and knows where a particular truck might be heading, investigations are dangerous. Like her mother before her, Lucy is told outright that it would be risky to go to the police for help. And as she probes the question of Cheri's fate, and finds it apparently linked to her mother's, Lucy will be disturbed at how close her inquiries lead her to home.

Carl and Crete, the Dane brothers, are heir not only to the off-the-books grave-digging business, the combined local grocery store and restaurant, and various secrets, but also to mental illness and corruption. As its title suggests, The Weight of Blood is concerned with the strength of our bonds to our family, and the tension between biological ties of blood and the families we choose for ourselves. In a remarkably convincing portrayal of young adulthood, Lucy allows McHugh to explore themes of loyalty: where it's owed, and to what extremes.

The atmosphere McHugh evokes in this masterful debut is wonderfully spooky, exemplifying Southern noir with a backwoods mountain twist and a matter-of-fact willingness to bury its dead out back and walk away. Taut pacing, lively suspense and atmosphere are the strongest points of a novel that also has an engaging plot and beautifully built, sympathetic characters to its credit. For fans of dark, suspenseful, well-structured thrillers, The Weight of Blood is a delicious and nail-biting treat. --Julia Jenkins

Spiegel & Grau, $26, hardcover, 9780812995206

Spiegel & Grau: Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh


Laura McHugh: On Dark and Light

Laura McHugh grew up in small towns in Iowa and the Ozark mountains of southern Missouri. She now lives in Columbia, Missouri, with her husband, two young daughters and one enormous dog. Her background includes computer science, software development and library science; The Weight of Blood is her first novel.

Lucy's voice is convincingly young adult. Did you find it difficult to write in her voice? What kind of preparation did you do?

That made me laugh, because I sometimes forget how far removed I am from being a young person. Lucy is the youngest of the narrators, but her voice came to me first. I didn't do any formal preparation, though I think a few things in my everyday life gave me a foundation to work from. I kept a journal throughout my teens, and I still remember how I felt and acted at that age. I tried to channel my 17-year-old self to an extent, though only a few bits and pieces of me ended up in Lucy's character. Some of my favorite books are adult novels with young adult narrators, and I kept those in mind as I was writing Lucy's sections. And I'm not sure whether this really helped or not, but as the youngest of eight kids, I spent years observing (spying on) my teenage brothers and sisters.

Did the evil side of this novel get to you at all while you were writing? Give you nightmares?

I didn't have nightmares, but I did spend an unhealthy amount of time worrying about the dangers that await my daughters out in the world. My oldest is in elementary school, and I won't let her walk home from the bus stop by herself, because I keep a mental list of children who were kidnapped on the way to or from school. I always imagine the darkest possibilities in any situation, which isn't good for my anxiety level, but serves me well as a writer.

Is this dark story based on truth?

Part of it, yes. I started the novel knowing that Lucy's friend Cheri was dead, but I wasn't sure what had happened to her. Then I came across a news article about a shocking crime involving a young woman in Lebanon, Missouri--the small town where I'd attended high school--and I knew that Cheri would suffer a similar experience.

Living in rural communities, it often seems like everyone knows everyone else's business, and that it would be impossible to keep secrets, but then you see a horrific case like this one--multiple people involved, over several years, and no one said a word. I don't want to give too much away, though I can tell you that the real-life victim survived her ordeal, unlike Cheri.

What about the Ozarks drew you to place your characters there?

The forbidding landscape and the remoteness of the Ozarks create a sense of foreboding that helps set the tone of the novel. And I've always been fascinated by the culture, which is steeped in folk wisdom, home remedies, and superstition. We were outsiders in our tiny town, yet at the same time, it became my home. Years after moving away, I was still haunted by the place, and the novel allowed me to explore the darker side of those tight-knit rural communities where outsiders aren't welcome.

How did you decide to use a split narrative?

Lucy doesn't know what happened to her mother, Lila, but I wanted the reader to know. And I didn't want Lila's story to be backstory, I wanted it to be as real and present as Lucy's. The split narrative allowed me to do that, though I often cursed myself for that decision during revisions--I kept thinking how much easier it would have been to write a novel with one timeline and one narrator! In the end, weaving the two narratives together was the most satisfying part of the writing process.

And the secondary characters get perspectives as well, although not in first person. How did that strategy come to you? Was it especially challenging?

I hadn't initially planned for more than two narrators, but as I worked on the first draft, the other characters kept telling their own versions of events. Each secondary character has secrets--pieces of the puzzle that are hidden from everyone else--and their perspectives were necessary to make the story whole. I wrote the secondary characters' sections as they came to me, some in first person and some in third, and eventually changed them all to third for consistency. I wanted Lucy and Lila to stand out as the main characters, so I kept them in first person.

The hardest part was integrating the different perspectives and timelines. I clipped an index card to each chapter, with notes on the narrator, timeline, and key events. Then I spread them all out on the floor and moved them around, trying to get the order right and identify any gaps in the story. I was very methodical and possibly a bit crazed. The process took days, during which I fed my children a lot of chicken nuggets and let them watch too much TV. Everyone, including the dog, was relieved when I finished that part and let them back in the living room.

What do you have in mind next? Is there room for a sequel here?

Spiegel & Grau has purchased my second novel, Arrowood, which I'm working on now. A young woman returns to her childhood home in a decaying Iowa river town, where she witnessed the kidnapping of her sisters years ago. A terrible discovery forces her to question everything about her past, including her own memory.

I would love to write more books set in the Ozarks, though I'm not sure if Lucy will make an appearance. I was pretty hard on her in The Weight of Blood, and I think she deserves to rest for a while. --Julia Jenkins


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