cover image MERCY AMONG THE CHILDREN

MERCY AMONG THE CHILDREN

David Adams Richards, Author . Arcade $24.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-55970-586-8

Unrecognized yet in the States, Canadian author Richards should win new readers here with this stark and affecting novel. A working man living in a shack in the "Stumps," an area of New Brunswick dependent on timber and tourism, Sydney Henderson has the unfortunate knack of arousing hostility among his neighbors by the unconscious display of his virtues. As a child, he was beaten by his father, sexually abused by his priest and once nearly killed a playmate. Out of such experiences he has forged a Tolstoyan moral credo, educating himself in literature and art and refusing to meet violence with violence. When Sydney marries Elly Brown, who is judged too beautiful to be matched with the town's poverty-stricken outcast, the scapegoating gets worse. Rebuffed by Elly when he attempts to rape her, a vindictive Stumps resident joins a scheme that eventually causes Sydney to be blamed for crimes he hasn't committed, including manslaughter and child abuse. The novel is narrated by Sydney's son, Lyle, who, in opposition to his father's stoic pacifism, craves revenge. In trying to exact it, he becomes feared, but is inwardly polluted. Worse, he injures those he loves most. The dogged narration takes some time to acquire dramatic tension, but eventually its unflagging rhythm becomes addictive. Though some readers may recoil from the book's frank depiction of pervasive poverty, Richards shows how powerfully the novel can operate as a mode of moral exploration—a fact sometimes forgotten in the age of postmodern irony. (Oct.)

Forecast:Richards's novel won Canada's 2000 Giller Award (shared with Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost), and critical attention should give it a boost here, too. Arcade is ordering a 35,000-copy first printing and sending Richards on a four-city author tour.