The Weight of BloodThe Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh
My rating: 3/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne Star

3.5 stars cats, actually…

without even consciously trying to, i have read seven books so far this year, and all of them have been by women. take that, patriarchy! but don’t start raising me on the shoulders of feminism just yet, because what i am about to say will probably cause you to throw me into the gutter, and i would rather avoid the bruising.

this book is a women’s version of grit lit.

but hold up! by saying this i am in no way saying it is inferior to the novels in the mostly male-author dominated genre, and i am offended that you would even make that accusation. which you haven’t. but here on the goodreads, i have seen so many flare-ups over people using terms like “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” as though these are not actual, useful and recognizable distinctions for certain kinds of books, that i am trying to make myself perfectly clear before these situations arise.

this is not women’s fiction, and it certainly is not chick lit. but it does offer a more female (not “feminine”) perspective to grit lit, which is usually characterized by a stark writing style and less insight into a character’s psychology than just the very basic facts of the struggles of rural individuals living impoverished lives in harsh landscapes where nature doesn’t give a damn and the moral codes are more biblical than, for lack of a better word at the moment, civilized.

so i’m not saying this is girly, not at all. it is still full of that backwoods justice that i so love:

It was common knowledge that in the hills, with infinite hiding places, bodies disappeared. They were fed to hogs or buried in the woods or dropped into abandoned wells. They were not dismembered and set out on display. It just wasn’t how things were done. It was that lack of adherence to custom that seemed to frighten people the most. Why would someone risk getting caught to show us what he’d done to Cheri when it would’ve been so easy to keep her body hidden? The only reasonable explanation was that an outsider was responsible, and outsiders bred fear in a way no homegrown criminal could.

and that’s perfect – that is one of the reasons i love this kind of writing so much – i love the idea of these small, close-knit social groups with their mistrust of outsiders and their very specific traditions and superstitions that have evolved over time, living away from the rest of the world.

and we have a strong independent female co-narrator in lucy who has grown up within this system, knows the rules, and is handy with a gun, who is somewhat “other” because her mother came from “outside,” but who is enough of the place to understand its rules, even as she deviates from them somewhat.

“I know you, though, Luce, and you always want to do the right thing.”

“I want to do my version of the right thing.”

but the book is ultimately about women, and the ways in which their lives have been affected, for better or worse, by men. this is a split-narrative (mostly) between two female characters: lila and her daughter lucy. lila came up through the foster care system in iowa after her mother and stepfather were killed in an accident. a beautiful, magnetic kind of girl with a keen instinct for survival who makes people uneasy even as they are drawn to her. she endured the unwanted sexual attention of foster brothers and fathers, and fought back when it became an attempt at actual abuse. she has nowhere else to go, and no kin of her own, so when she responds to a help wanted ad that takes her to henbane, missouri (population 700) she knows this has to work out, because – again – she has nowhere else to go. it does not work out at all well, and she finds herself in a dangerous place without any allies willing to risk their lives for an outsider. a scrap of luck falls her way, and she finds herself married with a baby girl, but still in danger and unable to tell anyone about what happened to her in henbane, lest she disrupt the fragile happiness she has managed to claw to herself. and then she goes missing, when lucy is still a baby, presumed by the town and her husband to have killed herself.

her daughter lucy is the other major voice. she has grown up in henbane, and is now a teenager with a teenager’s conflicted feelings of love for her family and her familiar surroundings but an uncomfortable yearning for more.

We’d learned in science class that stars looked brighter here than in most places because there were no competing lights. Henbane was a dark spot on the globe seen from space.

lucy is still haunted by the mystery of what happened to her mother, which only intensifies when her friend cheri, a “slow-minded” girl she has mostly outgrown but still feels responsible for, also goes missing, and whose body turns up a year after her disappearance, scarred and cut into pieces.

the story back-and-forths through lila and lucy’s stories, and paints an ugly picture of sexual intimidation, kidnapping, loyalty, and an understood code of silence. but it also tells the story of a mother’s love for her daughter, and the risks she is willing to take to protect her. there are other voices here: birdie, the midwife who delivers lucy and becomes a surrogate grandmother to her, lila’s only friend gabby, who knows nothing of lila’s predicament or background, and is shattered by her disappearance, and ransome, a woman who worked beside lila upon her arrival -who knew everything but never told. there are men in the story, too – lila’s husband carl, his older brother crete, and jamie, a man who was bewitched by lila when he was just a little boy, but it is the women’s stories that are the driving force. this is why i am calling it a women’s version. the voices at the forefront are those of women. the violence is the violence towards women. the men exist in this novel to affect or be affected by the female characters, and the emphasis on family, particularly motherhood, sacrifice, and the inner life of the characters are not often found in male-authored books of this genre.

this is obviously not saying that men won’t read this or that they wouldn’t appreciate it, because obviously that would be a stupid thing to say. (i have spent a great deal of this review fending off attacks before they happen, but that’s only because i am not new here on goodreads. i know this is a very hot button) and i appreciate the perspective – it brings a fresh take to a genre i have read bunches of.

(incidentally, this review i wrote ages ago crossed my path today, and that’s probably why i am so fixated on this gender/genre issue, even though they are very different books)

there is a lot to appreciate here. some of the plot-points strain credulity a bit, so that’s why it didn’t get a four or a five-star cat, but it is definitely a page-turner with an engaging story that is certainly dark and brutal, but not without its light at the end of the tunnel.

read my reviews on goodreads

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