The library is closed Sunday, June 16

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane

 

Until recently, I most vividly associated Dennis Lehane with the movie versions of his earlier novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island. Then a trusted reader friend recommended Small Mercies (2023)as a moving and timely work of fiction that featured vivid and complex characters. Knowing nothing else about the plot, I put the audio version on hold and waited for it to appear at the top of my Libby shelf. In case you like audio books as much as I do, I'll say up front that the narrator, Robin Miles, does an incredible job with Southie Boston accents. Male, female, old, young, white, black . . . Miles has got it covered, no matter how heated the emotional content gets.

This is important to know, whether you listen to or read Small Mercies, because the emotions do indeed run high. The narrative revolves around a social crisis that was much in the national news during the summer of 1974, when the book is set: the desegregation of the public school system. By focusing on this particular area of Boston, Lehane is able to explore the tensions that arise among the largely Irish-American residents when the citadel-like walls between their community and the citizens of neighboring black communities are on the brink of crumbling. To say that Lehane seems to know his history and this neighborhood well, down to its geography, colorful slang terms, mindset, and underworld politics, is an understatement.

The novel's central character, Mary Pat Fennessy, has lived her entire life in one of the housing projects that dominated South Boston during this era. She's worked hard, suffered through two troubled marriages, and has already lost a son, a Vietnam vet, to addiction. Now her beloved teenage daughter Jules has gone missing on the same night a young Black man is found dead under one of the neighborhood's subway platforms. Desperate and grieving, Mary Pat tries to find her daughter, only to discover that the girl's disappearance and the boy's death may be linked. The mystery in this racially charged crime novel evolves from there, and along the way, the characters inner and outer realities are vividly and memorably revealed, for better and worse.