Susan Meissner’s The Shape of Mercy has been garnering a lot of buzz in the publishing industry. She has received numerous positive reviews, including a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. I find myself on the fence.
The Shape of Mercy is a framed story. We are taken on this journey by the narrator Lauren who is a trust-fun baby, determined to prove to the world, and herself, that she can stand on her own two feet. She is hired by an elderly woman, Abigail, to translate a diary. This diary has been handed down in Abigail’s family for centuries and is a first hand account of the Salem Witch Trials, written by a young woman named Mercy, who was later tried and sentenced to death as a witch. Thus, in effect we have a modern story framing the historical story.
The writing is beautiful, poetic and lyrical. The characters draw you in and wring tears from you as they discover truths about themselves along the way. The story is compelling and even though you know that Mercy is fated to die, you can’t help reading and hoping.
For me this book came down to the ending. And when I got there I was in such an ethical dilemma that I was only relieved that it was over.
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My issue with this story is that it portrays suicide as an act of mercy. As somehow more honorable than execution. The premise is that Mercy knows she has been condemned to die, but she doesn’t want the man she loves to be left with the image of her being hung. Instead she takes matters into her own hands and hangs herself. To me this smacks more of vanity than mercy. I appreciate the thought behind this novel, but I just cannot buy into it, despite my best efforts. After all, what if Jesus decided to commit suicide instead of being crucified, so that his mother would be spared unpleasant memories. Which is the greater act of mercy?