Reviewed by Alice Farrant
Mercy Seat is a beautifully stirring novel, set in a remote seaside town in west Wales. Luke, our protagonist and narrator, is an aimless young man on the cusp of adulthood, married to Jenny, with a son, Michael. He is living a life he is barely prepared for, slightly out of flux with his surroundings. Both he and Jenny drift through life, balancing between happiness and misery, that is until Jenny’s sister Christine comes to stay. The arrival of Christine pushes Luke out of his daze in ways that will change their lives irrevocably.
I think now, nearly thirty years too late, that Christine came to us that summer not meaning to shipwreck our lives, at least not to begin with, but just to same herself somehow. Like the swimmer she was, and too far out from land, she know she had to find something to take hold of or drown.
Mercy Seat is a superbly character driven novel. Price’s prose is lyrical, a talent that comes from his short story and poetry writing. The novel brings together many characteristics of a short story; characters are almost nameless, translucent and half-existing, in a way that is representative of Luke’s travel through life. He is half living half in his mind, a sort of person that has gone through life not quite achieving his potential. Not for lack of opportunity, but because he is so internal. He was a lonely child, and has carried this loneliness and detachment into adulthood.
The writing is without speech marks, coming solely from Luke’s mind. It puts you firmly in the position of Luke, in not knowing and having a gauze-like view of the world. You only know what he knows, which adds an element of mystery that propels the novel. There are certain questions which are never answered, and it never seems to matter. The form knocks you out of the story at first, but you’ll find yourself quickly adapting.
When I was younger I used to get anxious facing forwards in trains – I preferred seeing everything slipping away to seeing everything coming at me headlong.
Luke is unable to face difficult moments in life, preferring to let them take their course undiscussed. Often Jenny begins to tell him snippets from her past, snippets that may have changed the course of the novel’s events, but he never wants to take hold of them in fear of falling too deep.
Despite being young, Luke appears ageless, as if he is living every moment of his life at once. I quickly forgot this was a boy at the edge of understanding what it was to be adult, but at the same time encountered every reminder of it. It is as if he is stuck in limbo, forced to grow up too soon, but never guided to manhood.
Christine and Jenny are complete opposites, but both are haunted by their father. One through loathing and one through love. We the reader will never discover much about this relationship, but it is fascinating watching the veneer of happiness chip away as time elapses. Christine appears as an otherly person, labelled as the odd one who followed their father into religious zeal. She is slightly out of focus with the world, a quality she shares with Luke. Neither of them seem to know where they are or who they should be.
Religion is a string that ties this novel together, though never the direct focus. Mercy Seat is titled after a prayer bench, originally created for aging monks to rest during prayer. It symbolises both the characters’ relationship with religion, and the fact that visiting Jenny and Luke is a mercy seat for Christine. It’s unclear how Luke feels about religion as the story begins, being typically ambivalent to so much of what happens in his life. But, it seems as if religion is what drew Jenny to him and what draws him to Christine.
Mercy Seat is a novel that will sneak up on you, slowly dragging you into it’s clutches. Its poetic style and introspective nature makes it a truly wonderful read.
You can read more by Alice at her blog, ofBooks or find her on Twitter, @nomoreparades.
Wayne Price, Mercy Seat (Freight Books: Glasgow, 2015). 978-908754981, 199pp., paperback.
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