Laura McHugh is a previously unknown novelist residing in Columbia who is about to become well known for a book set in small-town Missouri.
Her debut novel, “The Weight of Blood,” could fairly be classified as mystery fiction with a literary overlay. Or as literary fiction with mystery at its core.
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In any case, it’s superb. Sentence after sentence reads like a gem. The dialogue is masterful. The characters are believable. The plotting is gripping.
Lucy Dane is the main character, a somewhat naive yet wise 18-year-old. Lucy’s mother, Lila, was a teenager herself when she moved from Iowa to Henbane, population 700 and located deep in the Missouri Ozarks. The residents of Henbane had whispered a lot about her. Why had she shown up in Henbane? What accounted for her exotic beauty? Did she possess witch-like powers?
Lucy never knew the answers to those questions because Lila had disappeared at age 19, while Lucy was an infant.
As the novel opens, Lucy is grappling not only with the continuing mystery of her mother’s fate but also with the murder of Cheri Stoddard, her friend. Cheri had disappeared, too, but her body reappeared — in pieces, dismembered, about a year later. Could there be a connection between Cheri’s murder and Lila’s disappearance, although they were separated by about 16 years?
Lucy is determined to learn whatever she can. Sleuthing in a small, inbred town can feel dangerous because it is difficult to mask. Lucy is vaguely aware of the dangers. Like many youths, however, she feels immortal, and takes risks without feeling paralyzed by potential dire consequences.
Her father, Carl Dane, worries about his headstrong daughter. But he cannot monitor her all day and all night because his work often causes him to travel. When Carl married Lila, he bucked opposition from numerous townspeople, including his older brother Crete, arguably the most powerful resident of Henbane. Lucy wonders what, if anything, Carl might be hiding about Lila’s disappearance. Lucy loves her father dearly and yet senses he might be holding back information.
As for Crete, well, Lucy thinks he must know plenty about Lila that has been left unspoken. Furthermore, evidence unearthed by Lucy suggests Crete might know something about the murder of Cheri.
Further description of the story is risky because inadvertent spoilers might surface. Yes, the plotting is complex. But it is never convoluted, never confusing, never unbelievable; McHugh is extremely skillful in the realm of plotting.
A joy derives from McHugh’s skill with point of view. Some of the chapters are narrated in the first person by Lucy. Other chapters are narrated in the first person by Lila.
Many of the secondary characters narrate occasional chapters as well — but for them McHugh employs omniscient third person rather than first person. Juggling multiple points of view and multiple voices constitutes a high-wire act. McHugh never falls. The secondary characters who have their own chapters include Carl, Crete and three older women (Ransome, Birdie and Gabby) who knew Lila from different perspectives.
McHugh’s New York City-based publisher, Spiegel & Grau, is promoting the novel in ways that debut novels by unknown authors are rarely promoted. McHugh has been touring the country at the expense of her publisher, addressing gatherings of bookstore owners and librarians and fellow writers. That qualifies as a heady experience for a young woman who grew up in small-town Iowa and Missouri, the youngest of eight children.
She earned a master’s degree in library science and has been employed as a software developer. McHugh is now the mother of two daughters, modestly describing herself as a full-time mom who spends most of her time doing laundry and playing “My Little Pony,” but she also likes to garden, sew and watch zombie movies.
Perhaps some readers will remark on how a young novelist with an apparently sunny disposition can invent such a dark scenario in her book.
The horrors of Henbane extend beyond the occasional disappearance and homicide, as becomes clear about one-third of the way through the approximately 300-page novel.
“The Weight of Blood” constitutes first-rate literature. But it does not constitute peace of mind for readers easily upset by the darkness of the human soul.