I might not have heard of Wilhelmina Fitzpatrick’s second novel if I hadn’t had the good fortune to share a book launch with her. Mercy of St. Jude was launched at the same time as my book That Forgetful Shore, and of course “Willie” (as she introduces herself) and I did the polite author thing and bought each other’s books and got them signed. However, no politeness is required for me to give this book a good review — I genuinely enjoyed it, and found it gave a very believable glimpse into a particular slice of Newfoundland life.
The book is set in the late 1990s, at the wake of a not-very-well-loved woman named Mercedes Hann. Mercedes has been an unflinching model of moral rectitude to an extent that’s made her niece Annie Byrne and other family members resent her, though she’s shown unexpected warmth and kindess to Annie’s one-time boyfriend, Gerry. Told from several points of view, the story peels back the layers of Mercedes’ complicated life to reveal what made her the woman she was. Along the way, many secrets are revealed, some of them shattering. There’s a lot of humour in this book, but also a lot of darkness. You know how in some books there’s a deep, dark secret everyone’s hiding, and when you finally find out what it is, you wonder why it was such a big deal? This book is NOT LIKE THAT. When you find out the dark secret at the core of Mercedes Hann’s past, you can understand perfectly well why she and the handful of other people who knew, wanted to keep it a secret.
The storyline alternates between past and present, weaving back and forth from Mercedes’ wake to her childhood and young womanhood and then to her niece Annie’s younger years. I didn’t find the shifting timelines confusing, but I did find that I had to keep checking back and forth to figure out how the characters are related to each other — and this is not just a background detail, but in many cases an extremely significant plot point. Although I love e-reading, I would not recommend this as an e-book because if you’re like me, you will want to keep flicking back and forth for these details (a family tree would have been helpful, though it might have given some things away) and that works better when you have the physical book in your hands. But this was my only complaint, and not everyone is as confused by details as I am, so it might not be a problem for most readers.
Annie blames Mercedes for the loss of her first love, and as she learns more (though by no means everything) about her aunt’s life, Annie is able to take a few tentative steps toward forgiveness. As I read this book I was reminded that St. Jude is not only the name of the fictional Southern Shore community where the book is set — and in which Fitzpatrick does a wonderful job of portraying Irish Catholic Newfoundland in the late twentieth century — St. Jude is also the patron saint of lost causes. That should be a clue to the reader: don’t hope for an unambiguously happy ending. Some things, in this novel, really are lost causes. But there’s hope, too — and a little of the mercy of the title — when Annie is able to move forward without being weighed down by the bitterness and resentment of the past.