Reviewed by Harriet
I first discovered the novels of John Grisham over a decade ago, and had a terrific splurge, which I remember enjoying tremendously. Then things moved on and I more or less forgot about him, until a few months ago when I found one of his more recent novels on the bookshelf in a house I was staying in. This reminded me of just how good he could be at his best, so I was delighted to be able to review this, his latest novel.
If there’s one thing you can say about Grisham it’s that he is a man who cares about injustice, prejudice, and the abuse of power. In Sycamore Row, which came out last year, the issue was racial prejudice. Here, he turns to the terrible abuses perpetrated by the Big Coal companies, specifically here in the region known as Appalacia.
The novel is set in 2008, and that’s for a good reason. As it begins, 29-year-old Samantha Kofer is a hardworking and highly paid third-year associate at a huge New York law firm. She’s already earning $180,000 a year, and expects that to rise to $2 million when she becomes a partner. But this is ‘ten days after the fall of the Leeman Brothers’, and Samantha’s firm is soon laying off great swathes of employees, Samantha among them. The only sweetener, if such it can be called, is a promise that if she takes an unpaid internship with a non-profit agency, she can keep her health benefits and may get her job back in a year’s time.
So it is that soon afterwards Samantha finds herself in the small town of Brady, Virginia, working at the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic. The move to this desperately impoverished area is a shock in itself, but soon she finds herself dealing with cases which, to say the least, are a shocking eye-opener. Her first case is that of a woman who needs protection from an abusive husband who, like a large number of people in the area, deals in crystal meth. But soon she is confronted with even bigger issues, such as that of the miner who has been suffering from black lung disease for thirteen years but has been unable to get the benefits he is entitled to, owing to some highly illegal double-dealing on the part of his employers.
These, though important, are individual cases. but Samantha soon encounters some much larger ones through her growing friendship with her employer’s nephew, the charismatic young lawyer Donovan Gray. Donovan is involved in two cases, both crusades against Big Coal, which is destroying the environment through the practice of strip mining – essentially, simply carving the tops off the mountains to remove the coal more easily and cheaply than the traditional method. Donovan’s own property, Gray Mountain, has been destroyed in this way, and his family has suffered terribly, and tragically, as a result. He’s fighting one case involving a single mother whose two young sons were killed when a boulder was dislodged in a mining operation and landed on the trailer where they were both sleeping – needless to say, the coal company denies all responsibility. And so they do in his other case, that of an entire small village whose inhabitants have the highest cancer rate in America, owing to the pollution of their water by the chemicals used in mining. The power of the coal companies, and their total disregard of the suffering they are inflicting on innocent people, is evident in their willingness to lie, cheat, and even murder in the defence of their horrifying practices.
All this is quite chilling stuff, for the reader and of course for Samantha too. Her sheltered life, with two successful city lawyers for parents, has not prepared her in any way, and she has a hard time dealing with it all, especially when she discovers that Donovan and his brother are constantly being followed and threatened by thugs, who soon start watching her too. Her first, and indeed her recurring reaction is to want to rush back to New York as soon as possible. Yes, she feels sympathy for the poor people whose lives she is becoming involved in helping, and understands Donovan’s quest for justice, but she is a city girl, and misses the bars and restaurants, the cocktails, the congenial evenings with friends. So the ongoing tension in the novel comes not just from the uncertainty about the outcome of the various cases, but also from the fact that we don’t know how long Samantha will stick it out.
Grisham plays rather cruelly with the reader, showing how Samantha’s growing involvement with her clients and her increasing awareness of the crimes of Big Coal are constantly tempered by her moral qualms (Donovan has not been above some dirty dealing of his own) and her feeling that she doesn’t belong here. This is made worse by the fact that an ex-colleague has started his own firm and is offering her increasingly tempting benefits if she will drop everything and join the firm. You have to wait till practically the last page to find out what she finally decides, and I was really on tenterhooks.
If you like exciting, well-written thrillers which are also thoughtful and thought provoking, but have never tried Grisham, then I urge you to do so. I wouldn’t put this one in the top rank of his output, but he’s always well worth reading and I enjoyed it very much.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
John Grisham, Gray Mountain (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014). 978-1444765618, 384pp., hardback.