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Fleen Book Corner: Mercury

Like all the layers and hidden detail in the cover, the story changes each time you revisit.

The thing to keep in mind is, in the Maritimes, they remember how things used to be. We are, after all, talking about a corner of the world where third-generation locals may still be told that they’re “from away”. They remember what it was like in the old days, when the veils that separate one world from the next weren’t quite so thick. They remember that words have power, and formal curses may follow you for a long, long time. They remember about The Sight, even if they try to forget, since after all it’s unseemly and un-Christian. Keep those things in mind when you read Hope Larson‘s newest graphic novel, Mercury.

When Larson very kindly gifted me with an early copy of her book, I had some expectations: that the art would be clean enough to conduct surgery in its immediate vicinity; that the characters would all be individual, fully thought-out, and unique looking; that the story would find its focus in an adolescent girl, but not the Adolescent Girl Proto-Consumer™ that is so common in modern media. What I didn’t expect was the overall darkness of the story, nor the across-time cyclic nature it would have. Those who favor surprises may wish to stop reading before they hit the spoilers; take it as given that the book is fabulous.

Tara Fraser lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, and she’s in rough straits; she’s bunking with her aunt, uncle, and cousin because her house burned down and mom has had to travel to the oilfields out west for work. She’s got almost nothing, school’s starting up and she doesn’t know anybody, and she feels her connection to the family land slipping away. There’s easily enough material there for a damn strong story, so it’s entirely natural that Larson abandons it on page 14; we’ll come back to Tara in a bit, but there’s another story that needs telling.

Josey Fraser lives in Nova Scotia (“Canada” being more of a concept than a country at this point), and she’s in rough straits; her family lives a pretty hardscrabble life in the woods, the farm doesn’t do as well as it should, her father frets about providing a future for his children, and her mother’s never been happy with these circumstances (and every once in a while, mom sees dead people, but tries to forget that she does since it’s unseemly and un-Christian). But there may be an improvement in circumstances: a handsome (if somewhat scruffy) young man named Asa Curry (who has come from far, exotic Australia!) claims to have found gold on the Fraser family’s land, and their lot looks to improve.

By page 20 we’re 150 years in Josey’s future and it seems like whatever improvements the Frasers may have experienced have faded by Tara’s time. Fortunes rise and fortunes fade, but some experiences echo across time: Asa has his eye on Josey, with unspoken considerations of marriage. The easy-going Ben (he’s from Toronto, and his parents from somewhere in Asia) seems to have a thing for Tara, but the focus is more on double-doubles and cheap pizza than a new family. Their mothers push and pull in similar ways from opposite directions: Josey’s mother won’t abide the thought of her daughter leaving the family and land; Tara’s mother has a lead on a job in Edmonton, but will have to pull Josey thousands of miles from her family and sell the land. The gold itself ripples across time to affect both girls: Josey may have a bright new future, residue from refining in the groundwater at least gets Tara a day off from school.

The real tie between the girls takes the form of a gewgaw seen in the hands of Asa from time to time; it shows up in a box of costume jewelry that Tara’s mom had left behind. Josey learns that Asa is protective of the little globe with a blob of mercury in it; he claims it’s what finds the gold. Tara discovers that it’s good for finding lost keys and earrings. Josey sees her father killed for the gold and her mother curse her would-be suitor — a real curse, because words have power even when we forget and pretend that they’re just words. Tara wonders if lost treasure could provide her family the means to rebuild. The death spirit that plagued Josey’s family still lurks in the woods to bedevil Tara, but he finds his powers less in these days when such things are no longer believed (but still, deep down, some remember that spirits and curses and magic are real, and all things have rules — like the rule that says don’t speak when there’s magic going on).

In the end, Tara’s family has come full circle; the fortune that plagued one generation near to ruination may well save the latest — even if it appears that you can’t have family, home, and wealth all at the same time. On the last page, Tara looks over her new treasure and gets ready to tell her mom that their troubles are done.

But those of a low and suspicious nature would do well to remember that this is the Maritimes, where they remember that all things have their cost. That trending-towards-happy ending? We’ve seen that sort of fortune before, just as Josey’s father was riding off, before he came to his untimely end. I wonder if Larson has, in the back of her head (even if she tried to forget, because it’s unseemly) another ten pages or so where we find out that curses follow you even in these modern times when such things are no longer believed. That fortune has blood on it (figuratively and possibly literally) and while magic has rules, I wouldn’t bet whether that curse would decide the gold returning to the Fraser family means that its job is done, or still ongoing.

Words (and moreso: words and pictures) have power, even for those of us that don’t live in the Maritimes. The story of Josey and Tara will stay with you long after you’ve closed the covers on Mercury, and it will reveal more depth each time you open them again. Take your time, revel in the details, and enjoy — in a career full of stellar work, this is Larson’s best so far.

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In paragraph five, I think you may have written Josey a couple of times where you meant Tara. This made it a bit confusing.

Also, most reviews don’t reveal the whole plot. Not a complaint, but when I hear “spoilers ahead” I don’t usually expect quite such a complete discussion.

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