In A Mercy (Knopf, $23.95), Nobel laureate Toni Morrison returns to the subject of slavery. It is a theme she wrote about beautifully in her Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Beloved. This time, Morrison looks farther back, to the late 1600s, nearly a century before the colonies become the United States. Jacob Vaark settles a debt with a farmer in Maryland; his payment is a young girl named Florens. Florens takes up residence with the others in Vaark’s home. In this house of misfits, she grows to womanhood, believing the story that her mother had to give her up due to a debt. In the end, though, her situation proves more complex than she could have imagined. A Mercy is a meditation on slavery and on family—and it’s a wonderfully powerful novel.
Oh, no, I thought; I’m going to hate this: it’s written by two people; it’s in the form of letters; and World War Two has been done to death. I was wrong on all counts about The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial, $22), by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. During the Second World War, the Channel Islands were occupied by the Nazis. Shaffer, who wrote most of the book before she became critically ill, imagines that Juliet Ashton, a sophisticated London editor, received a letter from Dawsey Adams, a Literary Society member who found Ashton’s name written on the flyleaf of a book of Charles Lamb’s essays. After Dawsey invited her to visit Guernsey, Juliet’s life was irrevocably changed by the quiet heroism she discovered among the citizens of that island. It’s a charming homage to the power of literature.
There is sex, there is scandal, there is betrayal—in other words, everything you’d expect in a good courtroom drama. Emma Donoghue based The Sealed Letter (Harcourt, $26) on a real divorce case in 1860s Victorian London. The players in this drama: Emily “Fido” Faithful, early feminist, accomplished businesswoman; Helen Codrington, beautiful, bored, impetuous; Harry Codrington, distinguished Admiral, husband of Helen. When Helen embarks on a dangerous affair with a young officer, she recruits her friend “Fido” to help cover her tracks. But when Harry discovers the affair, the lid is blown off their unhappy marriage. Fido must choose between the friend she loves and the truth. But what is the truth? Who has betrayed whom? Great writing by Donoghue propels this story to its dramatic and surprising conclusion.