Malmuria Grant-Patel has come to rural Nova Scotia to investigate the mystery of Mercy Lake. A podcaster and short-story writer, Mal believes that if she is able to get to the bottom of what happened at the lake’s now burned-out lodge in the 1980s, her life will have meaning beyond its current meandering trajectory. Subject to anonymous threats and without much to go on, the intrepid would-be journalist soon feels out of her element, trying and failing to get answers about a mysterious men’s group in a town determined to keep its secrets buried.
Integral to Mercy Lake’s spotty history is Stella Sprague, now in middle age, unable to speak and living with the ramifications of a traumatic brain injury from childhood. Stella has resided at the Jericho County Care Centre for most of her adult life, struggling with the spectre of faded memories and finding vital comfort in her friendship with Dianne, an elderly resident at the home.
The third novel from Nova Scotia writer Christy Ann Conlin shuttles between the past, focused on Stella’s violence-plagued youth, and a post-pandemic 2021. The scenes in this narrative present lend a foretaste of how the lasting reverberations of COVID-19 might appear in literature, the virus lingering in the background and a concentration on what has been endured and lost. The new reality of Plexiglas screens and hand sanitizer only compounds the general sense of anxiety, highlighting the female characters’ resilience.
Because the women in the novel do the bulk of the telling, the reader becomes keenly aware of the various ways women are mistrusted, disbelieved, and dismissed at every age and stage. Through Stella’s flashbacks, Conlin captures the groping frustration and general helplessness of female adolescence, especially when confronted by men’s brutality. The novel also invites a critique of how we treat people living with mental health issues: by cruelly weighing the veracity of their stories, questioning the extent to which they have been victimized, and debating who is really to blame for their situation.
The Speed of Mercy offers a respite from the subject of gendered violence via its depiction of the intergenerational spaces women create to keep each other safe. The comforts of traditional domesticity appear throughout – there are baked goods, teas, and jams but also the infusion of a uniquely feminine magic conjured by way of long-forgotten remedies and cures.
While Stella’s story emphasizes that secrets and shame have the power to destroy, her character arc reveals that listening provides a fundamental path to resolution. When Stella eventually regains her voice, she poignantly asks, “Why is it my job to remember?” With this, Conlin beautifully emphasizes the unfair burden placed on victims to find their own justice and the fundamental lack of support they are offered. Written with the intrigue of a thriller and executed with the mystical grace of poetry, The Speed of Mercy is a fierce and thoughtful novel about trauma, healing, and the tender covenant made between survivors.