That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body. One Saturday in March, fog crept through the river valley and froze overnight. The morning sun crackled over a ghostly landscape across the road from my uncle’s general store, the burr oaks that leaned out over the banks of the North Fork River crystallized with a thick crust of hoarfrost. The tree nearest the road was dead, half-hollow, and it leaned farther than the rest, balanced at a precarious angle above the water. A trio of vultures roosted in the branches, according to Buddy Snell, a photographer for the Ozark County Record. Buddy snapped pictures of the tree, the stark contrast of black birds on white branches, for lack of anything better to print on the front page of the paper. It was eerie, he said. Haunting, almost. He moved closer, kneeling at the water’s edge to get a more interesting angle, and that was when he spied the long brown braid drifting in the shallows, barely visible among the stones. Then he saw Cheri’s head, snagged on a piece of driftwood: her freckled face, abbreviated nose, eyes spaced too wide to be pretty. Stuffed into the hollow of the tree were the rest of Cheri’s pieces, her skin etched with burns and amateur tattoos. Her flesh was unmarked when she disappeared, and I wondered if those new scars could explain what had happened to her, if they formed a cryptic map of the time she’d spent missing.
Two disappearances, a generation apart, linked together by one girl – sixteen-year old Lucy Dane. One was her mother, believed by many to be a witch, who just up and vanished one day when Lucy was a little girl. The other is a young slow-minded girl named Cheri who Lucy has befriended. Determined to figure out what happened to both of them, Lucy begins to uncover mysteries and secrets in the community of Henbane, some which she is not prepared to face...
The Weight of Blood came across my radar through a number of fellow bloggers – it has been mentioned and reviewed a lot recently, for very good reason! Compared in the blurb to Gillian Flynn, it is a very well-crafted mystery, but more than that it is a sharp-eyed commentary on life, family and the secrets we all carry around. After seeing the cover – which is fantastically evocative – and hearing all the good everyone was saying about it, I shot it to the top of my TBR list.
A key idea dealt with in The Weight of Blood is delivered towards the end of the book as Lucy talks to Ray the lawyer:
“You’ve got to be sure you can trust whomever you’re telling, that it won’t come back on you.”
“How can I be sure?” I asked.
“He smirked. “You can’t be, in Henbane.”
As Lucy investigates the disappearance of Cheri – and by extension that of her mother so many years earlier – we the reader realise just how true that last is. You can never be sure about anybody in Henbane. Neither can Lucy, which creates a lot of the tension in the book. Unsure who she can trust and who is telling her the truth, she finds herself delving into family secrets that will change her life forever.
Through a clever use of first and third-person narration, as well as a number of viewpoint characters which expands as the story progresses, Laura McHugh manages to weave a complex story of betrayal, murder and secrets through two timeframes. Overall, she pulls this off with brio, giving us the story of these characters a generation apart, teasing us with the past while she sets things up in the present, before providing the answer to a number of questions in a tense and breathless final few chapters.
The stakes for both Lucy and her mother grow as the story progresses. For Lucy, especially, she is forced to reimagine the family history she had always believed in, especially when it comes to her father and her uncle. The two brothers’ relationship is central to the book and Ms. McHugh does a great job of portraying them at different points in their lives while shedding light on just how far some people are willing to go for those they love.
Though few of the people we meet are necessarily likeable, nor the truths pleasant, it is impossible not to become enthralled and caught up in the town of Henbane and the secrets hidden there. Though the resolution of both mysteries do not hold many surprises, the revelations are handled deftly. More of a sweeping portrait than a true thriller, it was a great read that kept me hooked through to the end. I gave it 4 Old Scratch Caverns out of 5.
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