I received this book last year for my birthday and am thrilled that I finally got the chance to enjoy it. I don’t often choose to read thrillers but this one was intriguing to me because it takes place in Louisiana and because one of my reading goals of 2013 is to read more books by African-Americans. The Cutting Season is a mystery that takes place in 2009 on a plantation called Belle Vie (Beautiful Life), which is located somewhere between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Belle Vie is based on a real plantation in Vachery, Louisiana called Oak Alley. The principal protagonist is Caren Gray. She’s a thirty-seven year old African-American woman who has returned to her roots after some major changes in her life. She is the manager at Belle Vie and lives there rent free with her nine-year old daughter Morgan. The Cutting Season begins following Caren on her morning round checking what needs to be fixed, replanted, and cleaned before the day begins. Noticing, at a distance, a dug up spot near the far wall of the plantation near the old slave quarters, she calls her Mexican help to go and clean up the area. Soon after, she’s called back on the spot where a woman’s bloody body had been found faced down in the mud next to the fence. There the intrigue ensues.
The Cutting Season could be described simply as a thriller, but it is much more than that. It is an intricate story paralleling the past and the present. Certainly things have changed at Belle Vie since the nineteenth century, although as readers we are compelled to question how much. There is a strong comparison being made between the migrant workers from Mexico and slaves. Not to mention, choosing Louisiana as the setting, Attica Locke submerges the reader in the rich, deep, complex history between race and social status that persists there even today. Caren Gray is strong-willed, stand-offish, and flawed. Her character isn’t easily endearing, although as readers we’re captivated by her and the story because she seems to be on the outside looking in like us. She returns to Belle Vie after trying to run away from it for so long – hiding her heritage. Her mother Helen was the cook at this plantation and her ancestors were slaves there. Helen who was also the bearer of all the family history, which is important to understand where the story is going and most of all where it started. Caren comes to terms with the life she lived there with her mother, with the relationships she had with the Clancy family, and with the tumultuous break up with her mother while she was studying law at Tulane University in New Orleans.
In the beginning of the story, the reader meets a myriad of characters that Locke has brilliantly developed for purposes of perpetrating the mystery, depicting role reversals, and questioning social identity. Donovan is the character I found to be the most interesting of them all because he represents a class difference compared to Caren. He is a young black man and has a lengthy police record, but has a desire to write a play about the real history of Belle Vie. Just as Caren struggled to hide her origins from Eric, there is a definite class difference between them as well. Eric is a law school graduate and from a middle class family in Chicago and working in Obama’s cabinet. In their past relationship, Caren is ashamed of her Louisiana background and does everything for Eric to leave her. She doesn’t feel as though she could ever fit with him.
Attica Locke does a great job with intriguing the reader and most of all with building up the mystery. I really tried to work it out, but I guess I was a little slow on this one. There are a few red herrings. Even though, it was incredibly enjoyable and cleverly developed. There were scenes where I could feel the fear and smell the descriptions. Locke has an engaging writing style which flows perfectly and pinpoints exactly what she wants you to understand. The pacing was impeccable. The other thing that was interesting was how Locke included the importance of history within the story. She makes slight references to the relationships between slaves and masters, but she focuses primarily on today’s relationships between blacks, whites and the new migrant workers from South America that have invaded this area taking the jobs that were primarily for blacks before. Belle Vie is the place that connects them and emulates the past.
The setting is natural, wild, mysterious, and majestic all in one. The cover of the book was the right choice, which I think looks like Oak Alley plantation engulfed in fog. As a reader, you’ll wonder how Caren could think raising her daughter at Belle Vie could be a healthy decision. Caren and Morgan are secluded on a plantation surrounded by staff that aren’t close to her and even more so once a murder has been committed. The Cutting Season is definitely a must read.
Attica Locke is a fiction writer and her first highly successful novel is called Black Water Rising in 2009. It was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2010. She was a graduate from Northwest University and was born in Houston, Texas. She began her writing career writing film scripts and television pilots. She’s worked for Silver Pictures, Dreamworks, and HBO.
Title: The Cutting Season
Genre: Mystery/Thriller/African-American/Historical Fiction
Edition: Harper Collins Publishers – Dennis Lehane Books
My rating: * * * * 1/2
My favorite quote: ”The sun was higher now, baking the wet earth and encircling the southern end of Belle Vie with the damp fragrance of jasmine and dogwood ” (The Cutting Season, p. 28 )