An unforgettable novel - a riveting, heart-wrenching story of injustice and racism in 1940s Louisiana that is as powerful and profound as it is timely.
As another baking hot day dawns over Louisiana in 1943, a young black man wakes in a town jail to the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl - a crime some believe he did not commit.
In a tale taut with mounting tension, the day unfolds hour by hour from nine points of view: Willie himself, knowing what really happened and grappling with what it means to die; his father, desperately trying to reach home with a tombstone for his son before it's too late to see him one last time; the lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent, and their 12-year-old son, determined to get as close as possible to the action regardless of the dangers; the priest assigned to Willie in jail; the prisoner entrusted with driving the executioner and his travelling electric chair to the place of execution; and the mother whose only son is fighting in the Far East, bent on befriending her black neighbours.
In this exceptionally powerful novel, Elizabeth Winthrop explores matters of justice, racism and the death penalty in a fresh, subtle and profoundly affecting way. Her kaleidoscopic narrative allows us to inhabit the lives of her characters and see them for what they are - complex individuals, making fateful choices we might not condone, but can understand.
Elizabeth H. Winthrop graduated from Harvard University in 2001 with a BA in English and American Literature and Language, and in 2004 she received her Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the University of California at Irvine. Fireworks, her first novel, was published by Sceptre in 2006, her second, December, was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick for 2009 (both published by Knopf in the US) and her third, The Why of Things, was published in 2013. Born and raised in New York City, she now resides in Gloucester, Massachusetts with her husband and daughter.
It takes a brave writer to compose a novel about the execution of an African-American man in the Deep South when the topic has previously been brought to life by authors like Harper Lee and Ernest Gaines. There are multiple possibilities for failure: preachiness, melodrama and bias, to name a few. But Elizabeth H. Winthrop avoids these hazards by writing well, demonstrating once again that while the subject matter is the body of the narrative, the prose itself is the soul and the thing that makes a topic new . . . [The novel] gathers great power as it rolls on propelled by its many voices. — Tim Gautreaux, New York Times
In this spare, taut novel, the separate stories of the people around an execution join together to form a portrait of a town, a mentality, a moment in time. This is a compelling, sorrowful read, deeply perceptive and wonderfully full of grace. — Andrew Solomon
This is an atmospheric, subtle and beautifully crafted portrait of a divided community, riven by prejudice. Echoing William Faulkner and Harper Lee, this moving novel has clear contemporary resonance. — Simon Humphreys, Mail on Sunday
A heart-rending, devastating read. — Nina Pottell, Prima
A choral reckoning with our human cruelty and with the modesty of our very real and resisting grace - and this excellent writer's best novel yet. — Joshua Ferris
This taut, deft novel asks us to look, and to look hard, and our willingness is profoundly honoured. — Michelle Latiolais
Please celebrate Winthrop's audacious determination to walk through the narrative minefield of this account of an electrocution in the Deep South during the Gothic worst of Jim Crow times. Winthrop redeems her daring by lovely discipline and dignity, by the care she lavishes on each of her rounded characters. The Mercy Seat is a truly bravura performance. — Geoffrey Wolff
Some novels seem to set your soul ablaze with an author-induced explosion of empathy for our flawed, beautiful world. The Mercy Seat does just that . . .astonishingly moving . . . Narrated in turn by nine characters, Winthrop's story has the inexorable pace of a thriller; her writing of voice and character is masterful. And like the best fiction about the past, The Mercy Seat speaks to the challenges of the present. It's an astonishing feat. — Sarah Harrison Smith, The Amazon Book Review
Winthrop creates a kaleidoscopic narrative that captures the wildly different perspectives of characters beyond accuser and accused. . . Suspenseful and highly nuanced, Winthrop's novel raises profound questions about truth and justice. — The National Book Review
An absorbing slice of historical fiction. — Good Housekeeping
Beautifully crafted. — Jane Ciabattari, BBC Culture
Gripping . . .This is a small book, but one certain to make a big impact. Questions are raised and left unanswered in regard to the death penalty; no matter what your belief in this regard, it's impossible not to have empathy for Willie, as the author painstakingly walks us through his final hours, the clock ticking as 'The Mercy Seat' waits. — Missourian
Praise for THE WHY OF THINGS: With insight, respect and luminous clarity . . . This haunting, shimmering novel reminds us how all of us know our families: with unimaginable intimacy, and hardly at all. — Andrew Solomon
Keenly observed . . . richly drawn. — New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice
Totally engrossing from start to finish. Winthrop's scene building is captivating, her characterization intricately layered, and her ability to build tension both preternatural and Hitchcockian. — Ploughshares
Praise for DECEMBER: Winthrop is brilliant at depicting the bewildering world and its assault on the senses of a struggling adolescent . . . This extraordinary novel seduces as it also challenges: curiously provoking and offering small flashes of illumination, like matches struck in that dim and meaningful space on the far side of language. — Natalie Sandison, The Times
Praise for FIREWORKS: Winthrop sketches her hapless hero with uncommon charm . . . both he and the reader learn to appreciate anew the 'non-stories' that make up life. — Observer
A bitingly intelligent writer who infuses otherwise unremarkable moments with bittersweet pathos. — New York Times Book Review
A multi-layered tale of life, death and the grey pain of grief. And yet, it is not depressing . . . though slow burning, [it] still manages to be explosive. — Irish Examiner