The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
Date: September 18, 2012
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: Caren Gray is the general manager of Belle Vie, a sprawling antebellum plantation where the past and the present coexist uneasily. The estate’s owners have turned the place into an eerie tourist attraction complete with full-dress reenactments and carefully restored slave quarters. Outside the gates, an ambitious corporation has been busy snapping up land from struggling families who have grown sugar cane for generations, replacing local employees with illegal laborers. Tensions mount when the body of a female migrant worker is found in a shallow grave on the edge of the property, her throat cut clean. The list of suspects is long, but when the cops zero in on a person of interest, Caren has a feeling they’re chasing the wrong leads. Putting herself at risk, she unearths startling new facts about an old mystery—the long-ago disappearance of a former slave—that has unsettling ties to the modern-day crime. In pursuit of the truth about Belle Vie’s history—and her own—Caren discovers secrets about both cases that an increasingly desperate killer will do anything to keep buried.
My Thoughts: The Cutting Season is not a light beach read. It’s a wonderfully complex, absorbing story about family, race, history, motherhood, love and loss and so much more. This book requires the reader’s focus. It is as much about the main character, Caren, and her development as it is about the murders she is trying to solve. They are personal to Caren as one was her great-great-great grandfather and the other, the mother of two small children. In this way the author has used the killings, set generations apart, as vehicles for Caren Gray (the name in itself says a lot about her) to learn about herself and, in turn, the two most important relationships to her: from the past, one with her mother, and currently, one with her daughter.
The Cutting Season’s protagonist, Caren Gray, has taken it upon herself to try and solve the mysteries behind two murders: the recent stabbing of a female migrant worker and the past murder of her great-great-great grandfather, Jason. The body of the migrant worker, Ines Avalo, a young mother, is found on the plantation close to where the slave cabins used to be. Caren cannot help but connect the migrant worker’s murder to the disappearance of Jason. Both had ties to Belle Vie – she worked the cane fields and he lived and worked on the plantation for decades. The current case reminds Caren of her family’s loss years ago. She’s plagued by constant thoughts of Jason and dreams of what may have happened to him.
Caren’s anxious to find the truth behind both cases but for different reasons. In the current case, the police arrested a young man, Donovan, who works at Belle Vie but Caren’s convinced he didn’t do it. Caren likes Donovan and the other Belle Vie employees and sees this as a way to prove her loyalty to them. As for Jason, she wants to find out what happened to him as a tribute to her mother. Caren heard stories throughout her childhood from her mother about Jason and her other relatives who worked and lived on the plantation. Her mother never stopped wondering what happened to him.
Caren was raised on the Louisiana plantation of Belle Vie where her mother was head cook. Her mother loved to share stories about their ancestors once worked as slaves in the sugar cane fields of Belle Vie long ago. Caren hated living at Belle Vie and couldn’t wait to get away. She didn’t care about her ancestors and resented her mother for making Caren live at Belle Vie. Now the plantation is a tourist attraction and Caren has returned with her young daughter, Morgan, to be the manager. It’s a far cry from law school (she dropped out after two years) and Caren isn’t completely comfortable being back there. But it’s a job and a good, safe home for Morgan.
Having a daughter has led Caren to have regrets about how she behaved towards her mother before she died. She’d hated growing up at Belle Vie, wasn’t impressed that her mother was the head cook for a large house and grounds owned by other people. It didn’t matter the owners took good care of their employees. Caren hated the family history that her mother tried to share with her every night. The very thing that made her mother love Belle Vie: that her ancestors worked the plantation and lived here years ago, made Caren hate it. It embarrassed her to know her family lived and worked this way. She couldn’t understand why her mother was so proud of her ancestors.
From the start Locke had me interested in Caren’s character: deeply flawed but likable and empathetic. She means well but her intentions usually don’t come across in her words and actions. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. She made some poor decisions in her life and, as a result, isn’t particularly happy now. Caren has some major regrets, is lonely and raising a daughter, Morgan, by herself. Caren’s doing the best she can to keep Morgan safe and happy but knows Morgan isn’t happy living on the plantation. Morgan’s lonely and has been pulling away from her mother beginning to resent her for making Morgan live on the plantation.
Caren doesn’t ooze charm and isn’t someone you instantly like. She herself is initially suspicious of people. It takes her a long time to warm up to someone and, even then, can be awkward and stand-offish. Yet she is unaware of these faults, seeming to see herself as easy to get know and understand. For example, Morgan knows more about the “Belle Vie Players”, an acting group, than her mother does. Caren doesn’t spend much time with any of them even though they put on a play about Belle Vie’s history twice a day for plantation visitors. And yet Caren is surprised and hurt when she discovers they don’t consider her one of their own. They believe she would take the owners side over theirs if it ever came down to it.
Caren launches her own investigation into the murder of the female migrant worker after clashing with the police. She knows they believe Donovan is the murderer and is sure they won’t do a thorough investigation. As Caren delves further into her own investigation, taking some dangerous risks to get the answers she’s looking for, she learns about herself from unexpected places. What she discovers about the murdered woman’s life and the history of Bell Vie itself, combined with frequent thoughts and memories of her mother, helps Caren achieve a better understanding of what it means to be a good mother. She has a new found appreciation for her mother’s sacrifices and sees where she herself has gone wrong. As a result, she realizes she needs to make changes for her daughter’s benefit. Caren also becomes deeply interested in her ancestors and puts herself in considerable danger to find out what happened to her great-great-great grandfather. Caren’s investigation into the deaths of Ines Avalo and Jason enable her to come to terms with her past, let go of long-held regrets and forgive herself for past mistakes.
This book offers something for mystery lovers as well as readers who enjoy strong, flawed characters and absorbing stories. Attica Locke intertwines Caren’s story with that of the murders making it difficult to pigeonhole The Cutting Season as just one kind of genre. There aren’t many characters but that’s not a drawback here because Locke fully develops her characters so they feel real to us. Add to that the host of intense, interesting issues she includes and the way Locke layers the stories and you get a challenging, fascinating and powerful read for people who enjoy literary mysteries. Even people who say they don’t like mysteries will find this to be an exception for the reasons above. Whether her next book continues to follow Caren’s adventures or not, I know I’m looking forward to it. In the meantime, am going to make a point of reading her debut book, Black Water Rising which, not surprisingly, received fantastic reviews.