Early one misty morning in rural Louisiana, the body of a young immigrant woman is discovered in a shallow grave on the grounds of Belle Vie – a former plantation, now a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the American South. Belle Vie’s manager, Caren, whose own history is closely linked to the plantation, is drawn into the police investigation and soon makes a series of disturbing discoveries.
This book may initially present itself as a crime thriller, but it’s actually a work of literary fiction that deals with some powerful issues.
As a setting, the former plantation of Belle Vie is oppressive and weighed down with historical significance, not only for the characters, but for America itself.
The irony of the story is, that Belle Vie, once a plantation owned by rich white men and worked by slaves, is in the present day a historical site, still owned by the descendants of the original plantation owners, but managed by Caren, the great-great-great granddaughter of one of the slaves.
Thanks to her heritage, Caren is tied to Belle Vie. Her great-great-great grandfather, Jason, is a legend. Having chosen to stay on at the plantation after the Civil War ended slavery, he mysteriously disappeared into the night and was never heard from again. Caren grew up with her mother, who worked as a cook at Belle Vie and told her stories of her ancestors and their lives on the plantation.
After moving away to study law, Caren and her daughter ended up back at Belle Vie in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and Caren has grown accustomed to the routines of the place that has dominated her life. But that all changes when a young woman, an immigrant worker from the neighbouring farm, is found dead.
The modern day events at Belle Vie parallel those that happened in the past. The two aspects of the story are so inextricably entwined that the past can never really be forgotten; it haunts the present, much as the spirits of slave workers are said to linger in the tiny cottages where they once lived. Perhaps this is a parallel for the way that racial division, whilst officially a thing of the past, still simmers under the surface in many parts of America. Certainly the presence of migrant workers in the fields beside Belle Vie is an issue to those who now work in the museum, and worry that their jobs will be lost to their new neighbours.
Family is another key theme, and takes many forms: from parents and their children, to lovers, childhood friends, and transient relationships that provide comfort in a foreign place. As Caren tries to investigate the murder, she is also forced to face her family issues and the connections between the two.
A beautifully written, intelligent and passionate story that encompasses generations of American history. Attica Locke has composed a compelling and intricate mystery to follow her debut Black Water Rising, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.
Please note: I received an advance copy of this book as part of the Amazon Vine programme, however opinions are my own.