Well written atmospheric novels make you feel as if you are right there, sitting with the characters. Freezing in the pelting ice or sweltering in the oppressive heat.
Such is the case with Laura McHugh’s The Weight of Blood, which places you in Henbane, Missouri, smack in the Ozarks. You will swat mosquitos, wipe the sweat off your brow, and feel as suffocated as the characters.
Told from the perspectives of different characters, we primarily are in the heads of Lucy and Lila Dane, a daughter and her mother. Lucy is a teenager, living with her frequently absent father Carl. It’s the summer before her senior year of high school, and she gets a job working for Uncle Crete, Carl’s brother, at his general store. She becomes reacquainted with Daniel, a boy with whom she shared a Spin the Bottle kiss that she remembers vividly. She also faces the one-year anniversary of the death of her friend Cherie, a girl who battled mental and emotional disabilities. What happened to Cherie? Who killed her? Lucy wants to know.
She also would like to know what really happened to her mother Lila. Coming to town at age nineteen, Lila immediately intrigued all of Henbane. With her exotic looks (shared by Lucy), most in the town figured her for a witch. She went to work for Crete but fell in love with his brother. Crete, ever the possessive sort, may not have liked that little development. But unquestionably, he is a devoted uncle to his niece, just as Lila was a devoted mother. So devoted that many cannot understand how or why Lila disappeared.
Lucy’s curiosity about Cherie’s death and Lila’s vanishing act ignite the plot, which sends her off investigating the two tragedies. We learn some of Lila’s history form her point-of-view, and we get to know many of the two women’s friends and acquaintances. We quickly ascertain who is behind Lila’s disappearance, although it takes a little longer to understand what happened to Cherie.
McHugh keeps us turning the pages by drawing interesting, developed characters. Lucy is unforgettable, and we come to want to protect her from what we know will be a devastating answer to the mystery surrounding her mother. We also hope that our instincts regarding the danger Lila finds herself in are wrong, if for no other reason than we would like for Lila to be the mother she yearns to be. The two share much in common, yet Lucy clearly has her father’s blood in her. Carl’s sweet optimism, all but diminished after his wife’s disappearance, is there in Lucy. The supporting cast, while appropriately quirky for Ozark denizens, are entertaining and believable.
I enjoyed this book tremendously. It is well written and thought provoking. If the mysteries are a bit too easily solved, perhaps they were never the point anyway. Perhaps the central focus is a young girl’s search for herself, something she can’t do until she knows what happened to her mother and friend. Perhaps the greater issue is what comprises a family: does the weight of blood out-rank everything, or is what’s more important the people who are truly on your side?