Book Review: Under the Mercy Trees by Heather Newton

19 Jan

Under the Mercy TreesGenre: General fiction

Publisher: Harper Collins (Harper Paperback)

Pub date: 18 Jan 2011

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

This is a sad but ultimately hopeful story of a family over 30 years.

Synopsis (from NetGalley)

Thirty years ago, Martin Owenby came to New York City with dreams of becoming a writer. Now his existence revolves around cheap Scotch and weekend flings with equally damaged men. When he learns that his older brother, Leon, has gone missing, he must return to the Owenby farm in Solace Fork, North Carolina, to assist in the search. But that means facing a past filled with regrets, the family that never understood him, the girl whose heart he broke, and the best friend who has faithfully kept the home fires burning. As the mystery surrounding Leon’s disappearance deepens, so too does the weight of decades-long unresolved differences and unspoken feelings—forcing Martin to deal with the hardest lessons about home, duty, and love.


Martin left a difficult home and tried not to look back or even visit. A harsh father, bullying brother, troubled sister and other unpleasant memories are part of what he’s running from. But as far as he gets from his painful childhood home, Martin never seems to find himself. When we meet him in this story at 50 plus he is a failed playwright, broke and an alcoholic.

When his brother Leon goes missing, the list of suspects could very well be a long one, because he has been a mean bully and a loner for most of his life.

Forced to face his past, Martin comes back to Solace Fork more than 30 years after he left. Liza, his childhood friend and sweetheart has always been there for him even when she didn’t understand why he was hurting her.

Once the group gathers, the search for Leon takes a back seat while we meet the rest of the Owenby family – judgmental Eugenia, unforgiving of everyone, Ivy, (who everyone believes is crazy), her children, James and his wife Bertie and their son. This is a huge cast of characters, and it is a little hard to keep track of all of them.

With all the siblings and their family together, old issues and hurts come back to the surface. We see the story of the difficult lives through the eyes from the Owenby children and Martin closest friends, Liza and Hodge.

The story is told from three points of view – Martin’s, Bertie’s and Ivy’s. Only Ivy’s story is told in first person, and this works very well, since her story is the most interesting and the one that calls for the highest suspension of disbelief. But Newton weaves Ivy’s story in rather deftly and she soon became my favourite character. Although Martin is the protagonist, for me, Ivy’s character is the one that brings it all together and provides the back story and element of continuity from the past into the future.

It’s evident from the title that redemption and forgiveness are very much a part of the story. And getting there with all the characters was a thought-provoking journey. Under the Mercy Trees is a metaphoric place in life when people come to terms with their choices and the injustice against them.

While the story starts with disappointments of youth – unrequited love, it also deals with issues that crop up later in life – disappointment regarding lifestyle, achievement, careers that don’t take off and regret about the choices that children make.

This is a layered story – even Leon who initially comes off a mean bully that no one can possibly care about has different sides of him that we learn about from the other characters. He is also a tragic character who encounters disappointment and has to live with reminders of it.


This is a great debut novel with intense themes, memorable characters and lovely writing. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4*

*See my Rating policy


One Response to “Book Review: Under the Mercy Trees by Heather Newton”


  1. Book Review: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert « Stargazerpuj's Book Blog - April 15, 2011

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