September 28, 2012 8:48 pm

Bitter history

A murder on a former sugar plantation forces a reckoning with the past

The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£14.99, 402 pages/Harper, RRP$25.99, 384 pages

 

“Belle Vie, its beauty, was not to be trusted.” The deceptively named setting of Attica Locke’s new novel – her first since the Orange Prize-shortlisted debut Black Water Rising (2009) – is an antebellum Louisiana plantation-turned-tourist-attraction, where busloads of visitors are daily served up sanitised re-enactments and too-perfectly preserved slave quarters.

Locke wastes no time in unearthing the long-buried contradictions between this carefully dressed and dress-rehearsed surface and Belle Vie’s murky history: in the opening chapter, the body of a 21st-century migrant worker from neighbouring sugar cane fields is found on the former plantation, her throat slit. First called to the scene is Caren, the site manager who grew up with her mother working at Belle Vie and returned, after a gradually explained absence, with her own daughter.

When the police arrest a Belle Vie worker – a stubborn kid with a minor rap sheet – Caren, a law school dropout, sensing the authorities are after an easy conviction, finds herself immersed in the choreography of a murder investigation. It’s a dangerous path and as the suspense-building begins, Locke has us prick up our ears at least once every few pages, whether it be for a pointer to the future or a key to past secrets.

The author’s screenwriting background is evident here, from three-dimensional portrayals of even the most marginal characters to a brilliantly cinematic dream sequence. This is crime fiction in the round, with hints of personal stories given as much narrative weight as clues to the killer. By the time the plot reaches full-bodied tension there is more to resolve than one murder mystery; Belle Vie’s tangled history of family, politics and ownership is finally set to unravel.

The Cutting Season is a novel firmly anchored in its place, one attempting to adjust not only to its distant past but also to more recent events: the Obama presidency, hurricane Katrina, the impact of the oil industry on the gulf. Even more timely are allusions to US election campaigns and the interplay between money and power. Locke resists romanticising the south, yet “the rain and the muggy mess of Louisiana” still deserve Caren’s protection from the “Yankee attitude” of her Washington, DC-based ex-partner.

Although The Cutting Season succeeds as a thriller, above all it is a well-crafted warning about the damage wrought – generational, social, romantic – when the past is distorted or denied.

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