The Speed of Mercy by Christy Ann Conlin

Structure. Architecture. Let’s start there. The firmness of it all. The stern lines and sharp corners of Victorian brickwork, perhaps, and the imposing towers and staggered batwings of Dr Kirkbride’s asylums. Kirkbride’s ideas of healing architecture govern the thinking of a male character who seeks something there: perhaps peace and meaning.

What structures The Speed of Mercy? Water, perhaps: currents and tides, how water is timeless, how water can drown and save. The currents and tides feel more organic than the potentially stern lines and sharp corners of beginning-middle-end, which is not to say there’s no momentum. Far from it. Conlin rides tides and weaves webs to support her themes of women and girls out of time, and outside time, to ask “Where are their voices?”

A quick synopsis, quick because I am not interested in repeating plot summaries in reviews: Stella Sprague is institutionalized in rural Nova Scotia and has not spoken for most of her adult life. She seems at peace – if a peace derived from drugs and routine. One day, a young woman called Mal turns up, asking difficult questions.

Conlin is working on several levels at once in The Speed of Mercy. Its gothic atmosphere initially feels familiar, even strangely comforting, like a cardigan. One may soon get too warm. Conversely – or perhaps not –  it also feels like a cool parlour on a hot day, the sort Flannery O’Connor might invite you into and then guide you to confront terrible truths. The title of Conlin’s novel is a nod to O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, but Conlin is no imitator. Her voice is solid, strong, and entirely her own.

I expect some of the novel’s metafictional conversations flew over my head, perhaps those with Elizabeth Bishop and Maud Lewis; I don’t know their work well. No doubt The Speed of Mercy will reward re-reading and study.

“With a timeline not so much disrupted as tidal, Conlin guides us to terrible truths.”

I said earlier that Conlin’s narrative technique supports her themes of control, trauma, violation, and voice, and this is something we don’t see enough of in what gets called Canadian literary fiction, where so often it’s linear realism as a matter of course, with little apparent thought as to how and why linear realism works. With a timeline not so much disrupted as tidal, Conlin guides us to terrible truths. Yet there is no nihilism here, no giving in to horror and thereby accepting it with a shrug, no succumbing to the mindset that intentional and unjust power, however menacing, is immutable.

I could guess Stella and Cynthia’s trauma long before Conlin revealed it. That is not a weakness in Conlin’s writing; it is part of her theme. I am not surprised by the trauma. Appalled, yes, and sickened – but not surprised, and there lies the tragedy. Conlin does not wallow in tragedy. She recognizes it, recognition in the sense that William Gaddis uses, and that Flannery O’Connor practises: revelation and acknowledgement. Her characters are not to be pitied but honoured. Once we recognize tragedy and trauma, we can start to heal – and that’s how hope, a driving force behind any storytelling, weaves the novel together.

CHRISTY ANN CONLIN is the author of two acclaimed novels, Heave and The Memento. She is also the author of the short fiction collection Watermark, which was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, The Miramichi Reader’s “The Very Best!” Book Award, and the Forest of Reading Evergreen Award. She was born and raised in seaside Nova Scotia, where she still resides.

  • Publisher : House of Anansi Press (March 23 2021)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 384 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1487003404
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1487003401

*Please note if you choose to purchase this book (or Kindle version) through Amazon using the link below we will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. If you cannot see the Amazon ad below (if you are using an ad blocker, for instance) here is the link: Thanks! 

Michelle Butler Hallett, she/her, writes fiction about violence, evil, love, and grace. The Toronto Star describes her work as “perfectly paced and gracefully wrought,” while Quill and Quire calls it “complex, lyrical, and with a profound sense of a world long passed.” Her newest novel, Constant Nobody, takes readers on a dangerous voyage of espionage, tyranny, and love in a genre hybrid of literary, historical, and feminist fiction. Her 2016 novel, This Marlowe, based on the last few months of Christopher Marlowe's life, was longlisted for the ReLit Award and the Dublin International Literary Award and was a co-winner of the 2016 Miramichi Reader Very Best Award for Fiction, and her first novel, Double-blind, a study of Cold War medical ethics and complicities with evil, was shortlisted for the 2007 Sunburst Award. Butler Hallett lives in St. John’s.