Jennifer Haigh’s “Mercy Street” was published this past Spring in what has proved to be an exquisite sense of timing. My reading of it also happened to be very timely, given recent Supreme Court rulings against women.
Claudia, 43, divorced, no children, is the novel’s protagonist. She is a counselor at Mercy Street, a women’s health center that provides a range of health services including abortions. It’s a stressful job at a stressful time: Boston is buried in snow, yet the protesters show up every day and wave signs and chant outside of Mercy Street.
Claudia buys her weed from Timmy, a lifelong dealer. Timmy also sells weed to Anthony, who has suffered a traumatic brain injury, attends Catholic Mass daily, and is one of the Mercy Street protestors against women who have abortions. He takes photos of women going into the clinic and sends them to his online connection, Victor Prine, a real gem of a man: retired long-haul truck driver, armed and prepped for Armageddon, angry that white women were getting out-reproduced by Black women. Obviously very much against abortion. He posts photos of the clinic women online.
At first, you think the battle lines are drawn. Claudia and pro-choice on one side, Anthony and Victor on the other. Timmy the weed dealer just a stoner gluing it all together. Put the plot in motion towards a collision course and dramatic climax.
But that’s not how Haigh writes. Her story is less plot-driven and more focused on individual character development and change. It’s subtle, literary, yet highly readable.
Even though there’s an incongruence between setting up the situation (choice vs. anti-choice) and then heading in another direction, the writing always sparkles, and the story, even without much plot, moves briskly along, driven by the unique characters. I kept turning the pages.
Being character-driven, there is a lot of backstory on how Claudia, Timmy, Victor, and Anthony got to this point in their lives. I could even understand how Victor and Anthony came to their radical beliefs. No surprise, they all had fairly rotten childhoods. How else could you be so damaged now?
I’m a huge admirer of Haigh. Her first novel, “Mrs. Kimble,” opened my eyes to a unique and compelling plot structure: she told the story of a man through the eyes of three women who were fooled into loving him. Her novel “Heat & Light” did to fracking what “Mercy Street” does to abortion: making it the center of a world and spinning that world on its axis.
Any one of these three novels would serve as a great introduction to Jennifer Haigh.