Book review: ‘Works of Mercy’
“Works of Mercy.” By Sally Thomas. Wisconsin: Wiseblood Books, 2022. 269 pages. Paperback: $16; Kindle: $7.
I read a lot of novels, but other than passing on recommendations to friends, I have never formally reviewed any. Happily, that changes with Sally Thomas’ book “Works of Mercy.”
At one point, while doing some reading between other obligations I had, I determined that there was time to read to a certain page before slipping in a bookmark. Let’s just say that because of the power of the story, I blew past my own deadline. The other obligation got done later.
In the past, I have read Catholic writers and Catholic books, and although those were certainly excellent (think Flannery O’Connor or Graham Greene), Thomas’ novel is more of an “in the pews” type of read. Anyone who was raised Catholic will certainly recognize the characters (perhaps because they sit next to them at church or even have had one or two of them as their pastor). They will also recognize the uniquely Catholic culture that Thomas captures so well, from the lines at confession to casual references to prayers and saints that are part of the air Catholics tend to breath.
The main character, from whose point of view the story is told, is a decidedly unflashy older woman who cleans the parish rectory once a week. At first, she seems almost dull – although we do find out fairly quickly that while she currently lives in Tennessee, she was originally from the Shetland Islands. Throughout the novel, however, the author gradually discloses more and more about her past, revealing that there is much more going on there than the reader initially knows.
Thomas also introduces readers to other members of the town and the parish, and here is where the real strength of the novel lies. It would have been so easy for her to slip into stereotype (the awkwardness of the new, young priest, to the multitude of children in the Malkin family, to the homeless kitten who shows up on the doorstep), but she studiously avoids that. Just when you are certain you know in which direction the story is going, it doesn’t go there. By the end of the novel, there are a lot of loose ends that have not been tied up.
Happy endings may or may not be in the offing, and much is left open-ended, not unlike a lot of the parables told by that master story teller, Jesus of Nazareth. (Does the older brother ever come around, for instance, or does the rich young man have a change of heart? Do any of the other lepers finally come back to offer thanks?) Rather than being frustrating, the novel, its characters, and their fate linger long in the reader’s mind. Life is rarely as neat as most novels make it, and this one very much echoes real life.
It also introduces readers to the life and poetry of St. Robert Southwell, who the main character finds herself referring back to often, even to the point of giving a copy of his poems as a most unlikely gift to an infant. (For those unfamiliar with Southwell, he was a poet, a Jesuit priest and a martyr for the faith in 1595, during the reign of the English Queen Elizabeth I.) An integral part of her youth, the housekeeper rediscovers his words when confronting the new challenges that this stage of her life presents.
If there is a point to Thomas’ novel – and indeed there is, though not a heavy-handed one – it’s that life itself, in all its everydayness, offers everyone a multitude of opportunities to give and receive works of mercy, if only one is willing to engage it in all its messiness.
Thomas is primarily a poet, but based on this novel, readers can sincerely hope that she continues to write others.
Sally Thomas is the author of a poetry collection, “Motherland,” which was a finalist for the 2018 Able Muse Book Award, published by Able Muse Press in 2020. Her poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in First Things, Plough Quarterly, Public Discourse, and The New Yorker. She serves as associate poetry editor for the New York Sun.
She lives in North Carolina with her theologian husband and the youngest two of their four children.