I realise that I never wrote about Attica Locke's debut novel Black Water Rising when it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize a few years back, which was very remiss of me. That book rode high on its southern bayou atmospherics, and the pluckiness of its protagonist: low-rent down-at-heel criminal lawyer Jay Porter. It tightly wove the history of the Black Power movement and the machinations of the 1980s oil industry into a procedural murder story. It was all very elegantly done, by a writer who cut her teeth in the film and TV industry, screenwriting for HBO, Fox, Paramount and Warner Bros. What struck me at the time was how neatly the novel was executed; the kind of book that doesn't have any frayed edges, nothing to worry at or unravel.
The Cutting Season is Locke's second novel, and plays out in harmony with her first. This time the setting is a Louisiana plantation where single mother Caren Gray lives and works with her 9 year old daughter Morgan. Like Jay Porter in Black Water Rising, Caren has a legal background, having spent two years at law school in Baton Rouge, although she never qualified to practise. She dropped out because of financial difficulty, took on the management of a hotel, had a baby with her boyfriend. Nine years and a failed relationship later, she finds herself the manager of Belle Vie, the historic plantation where she grew up, now a tourist attraction and a venue for corporate entertainment and weddings. The estate has been preserved in a pre-Civil War stasis, with the Big House and slave quarters unaltered; the only changes are the intrusion of a gift shop, a ticket gate and a theatre venue in which local actors play out The Olden Days of Belle Vie twice a day. This reenactment of the plantation's history - written by the state senator's wife - is part of its recognition...
...as a historical treasure (worthy of state funding). It was as soapy as Gone with the Wind, full of belles and balls and star-crossed lovers, noble Confederates and happy darkies and more dirty Yankees than you could count. And the tourists loved it. Seniors groups and war buffs and New Englanders in shorts and flip flops. And middle school teachers, of course, many of whom ordered items in bulk from the gift shop as takeaways for their students.
Caren is hyper aware of the queasy irony of overseeing this chocolate-box presentation of Louisiana's darkly complex history. She can trace her own ancestry back to Jason, a field slave at Belle Vie, and can even pick out which of the huts he and his family lived in. She once discovered a drunken bridal couple fumbling to open a condom on the dirt floor of his living quarters. It is a moral swamp she has to navigate each and every day as she tours the plantation grounds, ensuring that the authentic look and feel of the place is complete, quietly exhorting forgiveness as she rolls through the quarters in her branded golf buggy.
One of her grounds tours leads to a grim discovery: the body of a Latino woman barely buried in the ditch that seperates Belle Vie from the sugar cane fields farmed by the Groveland Corporation, a national sugar conglomerate. She is an illegal; young, itinerant, working to get back to her family. The backwater police rock up and very quickly settle on a suspect. Donovan Isaacs, FIELD SLAVE #1 from The Olden Days of Belle Vie fits their profile, by virtue of being a young black male with a string of priors. But Caren knows something about their assumptions is very wrong. She discovers her daughter's school shirt stuffed in the back of a drawer, the cuff stained with the blood of the dead woman. Morgan refuses to say how it got there or what she saw, swearing that she never left the house on the night of the murder. Stranded out in the middle of nowhere, alone on the plantation, Caren starts to worry that the more pertinent question is not what Morgan saw, but who saw Morgan.
I heard Attica Locke talking about The Cutting Season on Open Book on Radio 4, and she said that she was inspired to write the book after going to wedding on a similar plantation. She wanted to explore the impulse of 21st century Americans, both black and white, to revisit the scene of a national atrocity as though it was a theme park. What better way to do this than through the investigation of the murder of a modern equivalent of the field slave, an undocumented immigrant worker. And what better protagonist than someone like Caren Gray whose relationship with the plantation is so deliciously complex. It is at once her childhood home and her current refuge, and at the same time the site of an enormous injustice perpetrated against her family.
Most black folks with roots in Louisiana could trace their people back before the war, when slaves had built the state's sugar industry with their bare hands. And they all had a good yarn about a great-great uncle or a distant cousin or somebody who fought with the Union... Caren had these stories in her family too, talk her mother had heard growing up, from elders who were told the very same stories when they were kids. Caren's mother was born and raised in Ascension Parish, and she was always clear that the Grays were sugar people, that she and Caren came from a line of men who lived and died by what they could produce with their hands. Her granddaddy cut cane, and his daddy before him, all in the fields behind Belle Vie. Her mother loved the whole of this land, and she wanted Caren to love it too, to know where she came from.
Questions of ownership and belonging thread throughout the book. The young murdered woman has no claims on the land she's buried in, except insofar as she works it; she hasn't been there long enough to put down any roots. The trailer park where she lived is an entirely transient space. She belongs elsewhere. The Clancy family, who own Belle Vie and the surrounding acreage in a legal sense, lack the spiritual ownership claimed by Caren's mother and ancestors - they don't have that 'bare hands' belonging. The kind of belonging that comes from actual contact with the land. They rarely set foot on the place, and when they do it leads to nothing but trouble.
Poor Caren is caught in the middle, neither fish nor fowl. Her years in Baton Rouge and her almost-law career have disengaged her from the place, and she has never worked with her hands or the fruits of labour. She has tried to resist the allure of the plantation, suspiscious of the idea that because she was born and brought up at Belle Vie she belongs there. She understands that the distinction between belonging in a place and belonging to a place, being owned by it rather than owning it, is fuzzy. She isn't and never will be the owner of Belle Vie, and the Clancys' are quick to remind her of her place when she oversteps her remit. The dynamic of power between the Grays and the Clanchys is fraught with history. Caren is representative of a torn generation, carrying their parent's old sense of racial, national, local, gender identity into a new future. She wants to be free of her feelings of obligation, longing, duty, but she can't quite leave them behind. Until the murder, that is.
Locke uses murder as a narrative tool of interruption, a pattern breaker. The same thing happened in Black Water Rising and it works, thematically at least. Still, something is missing from the whole equation. Would you know what I meant if I said that this book runs on rails? It thunders along, with all the right signals and stops, as though we're on an established route to somewhere. There is never a danger that we are going to jump the rails, that we are going to veer off. Narrative consistency, a narrow register of expression, a clearly demarcated thematic range, these are all qualities of Attica Locke's work. I admire those things to a point, but there are times when the novel starts to feel too thoroughly tamed to its purpose. A house cat rather than a wild cat.