Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Title: The Cutting Season
Author: Attica Locke
Publication Date: First published 2012
Paperback: 384 Pages
The American South in the twenty-first century. A plantation owned for generations by a rich family. So much history. And a dead body.
Just after dawn, Caren walks the grounds of Belle Vie, the historic plantation house in Louisiana that she has managed for four years. Today she sees nothing unusual, apart from some ground that has been dug up by the fence bordering the sugar cane fields. Assuming an animal has been out after dark, she asks the gardener to tidy it up. Not long afterwards, he calls her to say it’s something else. Something terrible. A dead body. At a distance, she missed her. The girl, the dirt and the blood. Now she has police on site, an investigation in progress, and a member of staff no one can track down. And Caren keeps uncovering things she will wish she didn’t know. As she’s drawn into the dead girl’s story, she makes shattering discoveries about the future of Belle Vie, the secrets of its past, and sees, more clearly than ever, that Belle Vie, its beauty, is not to be trusted.
A magnificent, sweeping story of the south, The Cutting Season brings history face-to-face with modern America, where Obama is president, but some things will never change. Attica Locke once again provides an unblinking commentary on politics, race, the law, family and love, all within a thriller every bit as gripping and tragic as her first novel, Black Water Rising.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
When I find myself in times of trouble – I felt bedraggled after the US elections – I find that reading a good old mystery novel helps a lot. It’s comfort reading for me. And I specifically picked The Cutting Season by Attica Locke because it felt relevant: a book by an African American woman, featuring an African American woman main character, set in a historic plantation house in Louisiana just before Obama’s re-election, in which an illegal Latina worker is found murdered. To this I say: there is comfort in confronting, important, challenging works too.
Caren is the manager of Belle Vie, a historic plantation house in Louisiana with a day to day life in organising events (people get married in old plantations? I can’t think of anything less romantic), managing the daily visitors and the daily events (there is a group of employees who put a play – focused on the white owners of the plantation of course, and the loss of their privilege). She is also the single mother of a 10-year-old and a former law student.
Life is pretty good until early one morning, the body of a woman is found in the outskirts of the plantation, near the bordering sugar cane fields owned by a big corporation. It soon turns out that the woman was an illegal immigrant worker and that one of Belle Vie’s young employees might be the culprit. Then, Caren finds that her daughter has been keeping a secret.
Not only her life and her daughter’s is at stake: Belle Vie’s future and that of its employees is on the line as well.
Straight-up, The Cutting Season is a good murder mystery, with a competent plot that twists and turns until the culprit is revealed. What makes it an incredible novel is its main character Caren, the way that the novel is built upon history and the addition of a second unexpected, heart-breaking historical murder featuring one of Caren’s ancestor, a freed slave named Jason. The latter is better left unspoiled but suffice it to say that this subplot is expertly interwoven into the main murder mystery but also onto the wider political and historical background of the novel.
Caren is a complicated character and I loved her. She is a Black woman with ambivalent feelings toward the plantation itself for example – a love/hate relationship for the only home she has ever known: her ancestors started as slaves, she grew up in the grounds as the daughter of the cook and now she is back after years away and in a position of power. There is the fraught relationship with her late mother, with her bosses and with her employees, with the law and with the father of her daughter. I felt that Caren was a super-rich, flawed, beautifully written character.
With regards to the second point, The Cutting Season is a multi-faceted, multi-layered, complex mini-cosmos of history. It takes place just before Obama’s re-election and some of the political talk in the novel (itself published in 2012) is striking in its hindsight – whoever thinks Donald Trump’s election was a surprise has not been paying attention. In that way, the novel is incredibly political – not only in terms of a wider background (one of the plantation’s white owners is going into politics, with a platform that exploits social justice) but also the way that everything is politics:
The Belle Vie employee who gets arrested for the murder, is a poor Black kid with a record who is then offered a terrible deal by the prosecution, adding an extra layer of law, race and the need for urgent prison and law reforms. The loss of white privilege – felt by the plantation’s owners – is still reverberating now. The exploitation of immigrant work in the sugar cane fields: is this history repeating itself? I also really appreciated how the murdered woman is not just a nameless body in a field. Her story gets told too.
The Cutting Season is a cutting, searing, challenging read. Possibly my favourite of 2016 so far.
Rating: 10 – Perfect