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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Guns, Race, Abortion: Jennifer Haigh’s New Novel Humanizes Hot-Button Topics

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Using a title taken from an Anne Sexton poem, she begins “Mercy Street” with Claudia, who’s 43, lives in Boston and has a high-stress job. Claudia isn’t really an urban type. She was born in Maine to a 17-year-old who probably didn’t want her. The junk caught in their trailer’s shag carpeting lives on in her brain. “She can still remember the first time she heard the term white trash. She was 9 or 10 years old, watching a stand-up comic on television, and she understood immediately that he was talking about people like her.”

Credit…Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

“Mercy Street” opens on Ash Wednesday, 2015. Claudia is at work, fielding phone calls from pregnant women at a health clinic off Boston Common, knowing every call is a window into someone’s life. Outside, high protest season has just begun and will last through Lent. Most of the protesters are men. One will loom large in Haigh’s narrative, but not in any way you might expect.

Claudia has lived many lives before this. Her past seeps into the book partly by way of her reactions to callers and visitors. She’s repelled by privileged types who can afford to erase unwanted pregnancies from their bodies, their career prospects and their memories. Likewise, the addicts too wasted to care about near-viable fetuses also bring out her disgust. Women motivated by fear — a mother of four who thinks her ex might kill her — unleash her compassion. And she hates hearing the constant litany of “It was my fault.”

After hours, Haigh steers Claudia to a weed dealer named Timmy. In a book that’s by no means solemn and is full of quirks, the ever-stoned Timmy and his big plans and bigger TV screen serve as comic relief. Timmy doesn’t understand golf but watches it for its soothing tones: “the rolling green lawns, the announcers speaking in hushed voices as though a baby were sleeping.” Claudia likes lighting up with Timmy and just talking. She’s plastered layers of gentrification over her trailer upbringing with a mother who nudged her aside for countless foster kids. Timmy’s run-down place, where he meets a parade of buyers and broods about the imminent legalization of marijuana, feels somehow like home.

Claudia, Timmy and all of the book’s other players — including, inevitably, a couple of characters who hail from Bakerton — have one thing in common: They weren’t wanted. They were resented from birth. There are two “sisters” and two “brothers” who aren’t blood relatives but were raised grudgingly in the same households — and both pairs are fixated on women and what they represent, whether that’s sex or reproduction. These people come from wildly different ends of the political spectrum, but they were all damaged early in similar ways. Claudia was smarter than most, but when she was targeted at 13 by her mother’s older boyfriend, she didn’t know what he wanted. To marry her, or adopt her?

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