Title: The Weight of Blood
Author: Laura McHugh
No. of Pages: 320
Origins: Spiegel and Grau
Release Date: 11 March 2014
Bottom Line: Disturbing and yet poignant
“The town of Henbane sits deep in the Ozark Mountains. Folks there still whisper about Lucy Dane’s mother, a bewitching stranger who appeared long enough to marry Carl Dane and then vanished when Lucy was just a child. Now on the brink of adulthood, Lucy experiences another loss when her friend Cheri disappears and is then found murdered, her body placed on display for all to see. Lucy’s family has deep roots in the Ozarks, part of a community that is fiercely protective of its own. Yet despite her close ties to the land, and despite her family’s influence, Lucy—darkly beautiful as her mother was—is always thought of by those around her as her mother’s daughter. When Cheri disappears, Lucy is haunted by the two lost girls—the mother she never knew and the friend she couldn’t save—and sets out with the help of a local boy, Daniel, to uncover the mystery behind Cheri’s death.
What Lucy discovers is a secret that pervades the secluded Missouri hills, and beyond that horrific revelation is a more personal one concerning what happened to her mother more than a decade earlier.
The Weight of Blood is an urgent look at the dark side of a bucolic landscape beyond the arm of the law, where a person can easily disappear without a trace. Laura McHugh proves herself a masterly storyteller who has created a harsh and tangled terrain as alive and unforgettable as the characters who inhabit it. Her mesmerizing debut is a compelling exploration of the meaning of family: the sacrifices we make, the secrets we keep, and the lengths to which we will go to protect the ones we love.”
Thoughts: There are two main themes at play within The Weight of Blood. One is that one’s family is the most important force in the world. Every character mentions this at some point during their narrative, and the story itself confirms this in the revelations of the Dane family secrets and Lila’s mysterious disappearance. The other theme is that the definition of family is more than just blood relations. This particular theme is less obvious but there nonetheless as it too is something which dawns on each of the characters at one point or another. The nature of the familial bond, whether by blood or something else, is fierce and nearly impenetrable, as the Dane brothers would have one believe. However, as each character releases secrets, the reader begins to question the validity of such bonds and whether there is a time where familial loyalty does more harm than good.
The Weight of Blood is unique in that no one but the reader uncovers the full body of secrets within Henbane. Each narrator carries one piece of the puzzle so that by the time the story ends, only the reader has all of the pieces necessary to fill in the gaps left by Lucy’s inexpert detective work and the ravages of time against evidence. This storytelling method also generates within a reader an entire range of strong emotions – from relief that Lucy does not discover the full truth to anger that there is a distinct lack of justice and more. The intense emotional responses also indicate a strong engagement by the reader with Lucy and Lila, two young women bound up in a situation neither one imagined or expected. The fact that both women are missing key elements of their family serves to heighten one’s awareness to the main themes.
For a teenage heroine, Lucy is a refreshing piece of fiction even though one knows that a heroine needs to be distinctly different from the rest of the cast in order to generate the appropriate emotional connection with a reader. For a motherless girl growing up in the heart of Ozark country with its abject poverty and lack of opportunities, it would be so easy for Lucy to fall prey to the same pressures and limitations that befall most of the cast. However, if she were to do so, she would no longer be the sympathetic figure that she is. Still, she does not get caught up in the drinking/partying scene. She listens and respects her father and her uncle. She has a remarkably calm and collected head on her shoulders. She remains loyal but knows her boundaries. She is not boy-crazy, and she actually follows the rules set by the adult figures in her life. She may be somewhat of a cliché but at least she is not a total cliché of a teenage girl from a remote and poverty-stricken town. This makes it so easy to fall for her loneliness and sympathize with her desire to learn more about her mother’s fate.
The writing within The Weight of Blood is taut and surprisingly sparse. Ms. McHugh focuses her energy on the big pieces of the puzzle, letting the reader’s imagination fill in certain details. Since a reader will almost always imagine something much worse than anything a writer can put down on paper, this works in the story’s favor. It also allows Ms. McHugh to flesh out the major characters. In spite of a scarcity of words and descriptions, the setting is vibrant and disturbing in its general air of complicity, intolerance of outsiders, and acceptance of secrets.
The Weight of Blood is the type of novel that leaves one disturbed by the evils which one person can inflict on another and the blind eye everyone can turn in favor of maintaining the status quo. The location of Henbane in the remotest part of the Ozarks plays a major factor in the tone of the novel because of its isolation and its overall foreignness from urban life. The lengths to which people will go to protect loved ones and the creepy atmosphere of an unforgiving town combine to create an exciting and yet highly uncomfortable thriller that makes one question the skeletons that may exist in his or her own family closet.