By Danita Allen Wood
The Unravelling of Mercy Louis is full of wonderful mysteries.
Wasting no time, the first chapter starts with the discovery of a dead, perhaps about half-term, infant that spurs a murder investigation; all girls of high school age in the fictional town of Port Sabine, Texas, are immediately suspects: Is Annie, the daughter who hates her wealthy father, responsible?
Is it Mercy, the young basketball star who feels her power and control when she’s on the court? Is Illa—the shy, young, practically invisible girl—hiding a big secret? Or is it Lucille, either a swamp witch or a natural remedy herbalist who lives in a swamp?
Add to that the mystery of Evelia, the charismatic fundamentalist Christian grandmother who has raised Mercy since she was a baby because Mercy’s mother walked out of her life and into addiction. Evelia has visions, some of which come true. And what happened between Evelia and her own daughter? Will that affect Mercy, too?
And finally, why are all the young women in this town, starting with Mercy, beginning to exhibit physical tics, twitches, and symptoms that apparently have no medical or scientific explanation?
Mysteries, red herrings, and fast-paced plot lines aside, The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is essentially a coming-of-age story, as the main characters Mercy and Illa navigate the ever-changing world of adolescence: friendships, family dynamics, boys, romance, lust, love, and the glimmerings of promise of who they might become in the future. Like life, the book can be unsettling at times, and the mysteries remain messy.
Author Keija Parssinen succeeds with her richly drawn characters. Mercy and Illa develop into characters that will become intimately familiar to every woman who can remember her first heated kiss, the high drama of girls in high school, or the euphoria of succeeding at athletics.
Additionally, the writing is both sumptuous and thoughtful:
“On the drive home from the party, Illa tries to resurrect the moment with Lennox, that melty feeling in her stomach, the mammoth hunger to be closer and take more. It was so exquisite and terrifying that the memory seems not like a shadow of the lived experience but close to the experience itself.”
But masterful prose are what we’ve come to expect from this author—a native of Saudi Arabia who now calls Missouri home. A graduate of Princeton University and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Keija moved to Columbia in 2009, when her husband, originally from Joplin, found a job in Jefferson City. The following year she founded the Quarry Heights Writer’s Workshop in Columbia, where writers share their work with peers, give and receive feedback on manuscripts, and learn about fiction and creative non-fiction. And in 2012, her first novel, The Ruins of Us, won a Michener-Copernicus award. However, she says that 2013 was the year when Columbia really felt like home. That’s when she gave birth to her son and experienced Missouri hospitality in full.
“So many people took such good care of us,” she says.