The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen has a title that immediately provokes reader thought. If Mercy is unraveling, she (a gender presumption, I know) must have been tightly wound. So if she unravels, then what? Will she have to be reassembled or will she just cease to exist? The reader will discover immediately that Mercy is indeed tightly wound. She lives with her grandmother (Maw-maw) who feeds Mercy information that her mother is a crack whore who abandoned Mercy at birth and has never tried to contact her daughter. Mercy is also driven to succeed as a basketball player by a high school coach who drives the team with the discipline style of a military drill instructor. Mercy lives in a small, socially close-knit town where everybody knows everything about each other; if not, they gossip. She is discovering her sexual self. And, since this takes place before December 2000, ultra-religious Maw-maw has convinced Mercy that the New Year will arrive at the same time as the Rapture, so everyone is going to die soon anyway. Tightly wound, indeed.
In this small town Texas environment, the discovery of an abandoned dead baby drives the populace into a fury as they try to find the mystery mother. All high school girls are suspect because of a subsequent discovery of a football team sweatshirt near where the baby was found. Mercy has yet to experience her first kiss; no way is she the mother. But her friend Annie has yet to meet the boy she hasn’t bedded. That is almost true but she is pursuing the ones she has yet to conquer. Maw-maw is not the only religious extremist in the town. Frequent rallies and demonstrations by religious groups make the teenage high schoolers feel guilty about being female. The small Texas town is near enough to Louisiana to allow influence from elements of voodoo, fortune telling, and prophesizing by mysterious old women who divide their time between being homeless panhandlers and forest hermits.
As if all of the above were not enough, there is an ambitious politician, Beau, father of the usually promiscuous Annie, who is also the owner of a horrible factory that emits noxious gasses and odors which occasionally make residents sick. Except for that one time in the past when there was a plant explosion which disabled several people and killed others. The cause of the explosion was covered up and hush money paid to the disabled, one of whom is the mother of Illa, a main character with a warm heart who wants to help others but is rejected by most of her high school peer group. Through the first half of the novel, a reader might have the question in the back of the mind as to why the residents accept living in a polluted place. Think of living with the smell of a paper mill. But the residents do accept this until a mysterious disease starts affecting their daughters. I have not yet figured out why no males are struck down with all these symptoms but, nope, only females.
This is a very busy novel. It is very complex as it deals with coming of age sexual angst in the midst of medical mysteries, corporate greed, and overwrought religious fervor. I found the ending very satisfactory and realistic. It is not an ending that is one point in the plot like the period at the end of a sentence. It is an ending that develops as it is revealed. It is worth waiting for and I will read more from this author.