Award-winning author Alissa York’s first novel is a haunting and masterful exploration of how passions of the spirit and the flesh can overwhelm us, and even come to inhabit the ground beneath our feet. Divided into two parts, Mercy pairs a single year in the past with a single night in the present, as they unfold in the town of Mercy, Manitoba, and in the neighbouring black spruce bog.
In 1948, a dedicated priest named August Day arrives in Mercy to take over from Father Rock, who has passed away. Although Father Day is young, the bishop has seen fit to let him take over the parish, and August feels he is fulfilling his years of devotion, study and struggle -- at last being able to serve God as alter Christus, or another Christ. The first service he is to perform in his new church is the marriage of Thomas Rose, the town butcher, to Mathilda Nickels, the orphaned niece of the church housekeeper.
Thomas Rose is a good man who waited years to express his love for Mathilda. And when Mathilda accepted his proposal, he was sure that their life together would bring them both joy, though in truth he knew little about his betrothed. Mathilda grew up in a Catholic orphanage and has since been living with her aunt Vera at St. Mary’s; she has not explored the world beyond the realm of her religious devotion, and approaches her wedding day with a mix of fear and dread. But when her eyes meet those of Father Day at the ceremony, Thomas seems to dissolve beside her and she feels physical passion for the first time in her life. As of that moment, August and Mathilda will only have eyes, and hearts, for each other.
Over the coming weeks, the young bride spends more and more time at St. Mary’s, caring for her ailing aunt and taking over the woman’s cleaning duties, but also savouring her brief moments with Father Day. Her marriage remains unconsummated, and her lust for the priest grows to fever pitch, as does his for her -- fuelled not only by the secrets they share in the confessional, but by the fiery text of the Song of Songs. When they do unite, it seems to mark the end of their secret relationship… but the child Mathilda carries away from the encounter assures us their story is not over. Rather, it is yet another thread to add to the tapestry of unspoken stories underpinning Mercy itself, and one that will affect the town’s psyche for decades to come.
Half a century later, another sort of preacher comes to Mercy -- a womanizing widower who wants to develop the black spruce bog on the edge of town and build a religious camp. Reverend Carl Mann is fairly confident of success, having taken up with Mayor Lavinia Wylie, but worries about the well-publicized protests of a woman known as Bog Mary, who has lived her entire life in the heart of the bog. He heads off to confront her and ends up lost and hurt, but Mary uses her natural remedies and knowledge to heal not only his wounds but his broken spirit.
A dark yet compassionate novel, Mercy rivals the fiction debuts of Anne Michaels, Ann-Marie MacDonald and Gail Anderson-Dargatz. Alissa York brings to life a tale of misguided love and damaged souls with language of incredible clarity and intensity.
Alissa York was born in 1970, in Athabasca, Alberta, to Australian immigrant parents. There, Alissa’s father taught high school English and outdoor education, and her mother taught part-time at the local elementary school and studied creative writing at the University of Alberta. Alissa has commented, “My imprint from that time is incredibly strong… I’m drawn to writing about people with their insides showing. There’s a boiling down of human experience in small towns.” In 1977, the family moved to Victoria, British Columbia. A decade later, Alissa graduated from high school and moved to Toronto, then on to Montreal, where she studied English Literature at McGill University.
After Alissa met her partner, writer/filmmaker Clive Holden, the couple travelled all over Canada, living in Toronto, Whitehorse, Montreal, Victoria and Vancouver (they were married in Victoria in the summer of 1993). Alissa feels these travels have helped her immensely when it comes to her writing and other projects: “Living in different places opens up your mind.” Along the way, she earned her living as a waitress, a florist and a bookseller. She also worked for a small theatre company while studying acting in Toronto, and appeared in theatre productions in Whitehorse before she discovered that writing was her passion.
Alissa published her first story in The New Quarterly in 1995. Her work continued to appear in various anthologies and literary journals, and in 1998 she and Clive founded Cyclops Press, an independent publishing company that specializes in literary multimedia titles by such writers as Al Purdy, Patrick Lane and Catherine Hunter. Alissa has co-edited several Cyclops Press titles and currently serves as Associate Editor.
In 1999, Alissa’s short fiction won the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award. Later that year, Arbeiter Ring Publishing of Winnipeg published Any Given Power, a collection of short stories, which won the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher and was short-listed for the Danuta Gleed Award. Shortly thereafter, Alissa found an agent and set to work on the novel she’d been musing about for years.
Mercy originated from the central image of a woman living alone at the heart of a black spruce bog. The character of Mary Wylie began to take shape, and at some point it became clear to Alissa that she was meant to tell the story of Mary’s parents as well. As the dual narratives developed, Mercy became a novel in two parts and, more importantly, an exploration of the emotional evolution that takes place over generations.
Reviewers have praised not only the story at the heart of Mercy but the intensity of the writing -- Alissa’s ability to infuse every image, every word, with power. “I’ve done some acting in the past and what I took away was that you need to be inside the words you are speaking,” Alissa has said. “Words have a tremendous amount of meaning inhabiting them.” Originally published by Random House Canada in 2003, Mercy has also been published in the Netherlands and will soon be published in the United States.
Alissa is currently at work on her third book, a novel set in mid-nineteenth-century Utah. She has called Winnipeg home for more than five years now, and when not writing or reading she is involved in other areas of that city’s cultural life.
“Mercy will likely draw comparisons to two other debut novels of recent years. While it has much in common with Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees and Gail Anderson-Dargatz' The Cure For Death By Lightning -- a rural setting, a backdrop of both religion and violence, a vivid and compelling cast of characters -- Mercy is by far the strongest of the three novels, riskier, more challenging and, ultimately, more rewarding.”
—The Vancouver Sun
“A debut that’s pure magic... [Mercy] is stunning in its emotive power and emotional resonance. York’s prose is taut and finely honed; her themes and the characters and settings that propel them are far-reaching and profound. It’s sensual, full of yearning and longing for the heat of love.”
—The Hamilton Spectator
“Alissa York is perched on the edge of literary big time with the launch of her debut novel. An intelligent and largely riveting story... spectacular.”
—The Winnipeg Free Press
“Alissa York is a writer to be reckoned with.... This is the type of book that makes one marvel. Each and every phrase, no matter how incongruous, creates an unforgettable image, and each and every image, no matter how bizarre, builds this tightly choreographed story to its near-impossible dual climax.”
—The Edmonton Journal
“Mercy is story that lingers with you long after its pages end and will likely garner even more awards and accolades for its author.”
“Past and present circle round in a series of cartwheels that York stage-manages to create an exquisitely rendered novel that is almost painful to read.”
—Quill & Quire
“York is emotionally unflinching, and her writing is sharp-edged and intense. She can depict both beauty and rot with equal felicity…. the novel ultimately ascends to a level of Gothic melodrama that thousands of Fall on Your Knees fans will no doubt adore…. Rewarding … a blinding flash of light, a flare gun in a darkening universe of lost souls.”
—The Globe and Mail
“Lean and poetic … potently seductive.”
Praise for Any Given Power:
"Some events in life — loves, losses, injuries, dark discoveries — enter us by force and linger on as symbols that soothe or plague us in ways we barely understand. York has considered these mysteries and turned them into prose that quietly sings. The best of these stories support the note-by-note song with brilliant structure, hitting body and spirit together."
—The Globe and Mail
"[York's] prose is energetic, muscular and exciting... [she writes about] pain, cruelty, passion and redemption set against a beautifully observed and delicately realized natural world."
—The Canadian Forum