Going to the Maritime provinces is a long-held dream of mine. Since my childhood introduction to L. M. Montgomery, I have been convinced that Prince Edward Island must be the pinnacle of beauty, and, by extension, the rest of Atlantic Canada can’t be far behind. And so I was extremely happy to immerse myself in the salt water and blueberry farms of rural Nova Scotia in Christy Ann Conlin’s The Speed of Mercy.
I make it sound very innocent don’t I? If I told you that there are scenes both of blueberry picking and blueberry jam-making, that the cast is almost entirely female, and that much of the novel consists of the inner workings of a 54-year-old woman’s mind, you might be left with a certain kind of impression.
Reader, you would be wrong.
This is an unusual and compelling novel, one that braids together elements of family drama, psychological realism, thriller and suspense tropes, and magical lore, with chapter titles that read like poetry and engaging female characters whose depths are as fathomless as the ocean that links them together.
This is primarily the story of Stella Maris Sprague, told in a spiralling timeline between Then and Now. In the narrative that takes place Now, Stella is fifty-four and living in Jericho Centre, a long-term-care home. She has not spoken in decades, and her memory is unreliable. Stella is confused much of the time about when things happened, what day of the week it is, and why her Uncle Isaiah has not visited in what she feels like must be a long time. She is anchored in the present by her friendship with Dianne, an elderly woman who also lives at the centre.
In the Then timeline, 13-year-old Stella is recovering from a car accident that left her in a coma for two months, and that killed her mother. As if that wasn’t enough for Stella to process, her father has decided to start over by moving them both from Ohio to his hometown in rural Nova Scotia. It is here that Stella must grapple with the reality of life without her mother. It is here also that she will begin to discover the secrets of the past—secrets of her father’s sister Stella Violette, who died at age thirteen; secrets of the powerful Seabury family; secrets of the nearby Mercy Lake. Secrets that in the Now, Stella has forgotten.
Much of the novel is spent with Stella as she takes us on a looping path through her life, always trying to navigate the danger that lurks around her. The small community in which she lives harbours darkness; there are powerful underground societies and cover-ups, and the white male privilege of the powerful taken to violent and ritualistic extremes. There is a horror to seeing the women of this community reaching out to one another over time with a variation on the same refrain: “My daughter is thirteen now. I need something to keep her safe.”
There were a lot of things that I loved about this novel. The sense of place is vivid and tactile. The salt water of the ocean, the driftwood fire in Periwinkle Cottage, sunsets on the bay and the sound of seals, the smell of seaweed. It makes me want to visit the Atlantic Ocean more than ever.
The light was dark grey now. She heard the breakers. Almost high tide. A breeze came in through the broken windowpane, blowing the curtain. The ocean was calling her name.”The Speed of Mercy
However, the real key to this book for me was way that it gave voices to people who are marginalized by society. Stella, Dianne, Seraphina, Granny Scotia—these main characters are all women who are dismissed by society as mentally ill, elderly, living with dementia. This novel gives them not only voices, but agency, and I absolutely loved reading about a cast of women whom society underestimated.
The other thing that really stood out was the depiction of the female friendships throughout the novel. I always have a real problem with texts that claim to be feminist but in which all of the female characters hate each other. This book has really lovely and loyal female friendships. The relationship between Stella and Dianne is particularly wonderful, and kudos to Christy Ann Conlin for creating such an intimate and believable friendship in which one half of the duo does not speak. That is quite a feat.
The lack of mother figures in this book is deliberate and striking. Stella’s mother has died, Cynthia’s has left. Stella’s father as well was left traumatized by the loss of his mother years before. Granny Scotia at times fulfills the young Stella’s desire to be looked after, however she is not always lucid. Seraphina is another mother figure who is there at times and not at others. The absence of mothers makes the need for sisterhood that much stronger, and the female solidarity between the women who survived was such a necessary part of this narrative.
I was bothered as I read by the way that the generations of women seemed to accept their helplessness. Their strategy for dealing with the horrific cyclical abuse in their community was focused more on strengthening themselves to bear it, rather than rising up to root it out. However, I think that this novel has a pretty bang-on characterisation of how intergenerational trauma can affect survivors, and how fear can be paralysing, and keep those who witness silent. Between the men’s political capital and the women’s internalized misogyny, this reaction is tragically unsurprising. In some ways this story could be read as a very empathetic response to all of those people who want to know why more women don’t report sexual assault.
And in the end, the women aren’t entirely helpless after all. The strength, resilience and courage of the women at the heart of this story affect a huge amount of change, even though it comes at a cost.
Throughout everything, there are hints of the otherworldly and an enigmatic connection that generations of these women have to the ocean and the water. These parts of the story were tantalizing, adding just the right hint of mystery and magic, and serving as a reminder of the power inherent in women.
I was sad to leave behind the world of Stella and her friends, and the salty tang of the sea air. If you are looking for a dash of the Maritimes and a unique mash-up of feminism, mystery, myth, and suspense, then be sure to check out The Speed of Mercy.