Eddie Joyce’s first novel, Small Mercies, is an absolute gem. The premise is an extended family dealing with the aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11/2001. The rich background of a Staten Island neighborhood and a family’s own history support this story of a family’s struggles to deal with the loss of a son. This isn’t a soggy tearjerker, and there are no larger-than-life heroes. Instead, we get to read about real people who sometimes rise to the occasion and sometimes don’t. By and large they are not at each other’s throats, but they often aren’t really connecting either.
The various family members have done some rotten things and been horribly selfish at times and yet they compel the reader’s empathy. This isn’t one of those books where the reader is constantly imploring selfish, misguided characters to get their act together. Instead, the tragedy of losing a beloved son and brother in a horrific attack makes the reader exercise just a little more patience and try just a little bit harder to empathize with the characters’ mistakes. Background stories of the family’s history are richly seeded throughout the book and add texture to the family’s current struggles.
The prose is clear and simple. Gail, the mother, is the centerpiece. She is a rock, except when she’s not. As demonstrated by the flashbacks to their own courtship and early marriage, Gail and Michael, her husband, have a marriage that has withstood a certain amount of bone-headed behavior on both sides. You’d like Gail and Michael to really comfort each other, but their griefs are separate. They understand each other and they have come to understand what they can and cannot expect. Whether they like it or not, they hold it together in their own ways.
This is a family novel. The author refrains from assigning saint and sinner roles. Everyone messes up, some more than others. All of the characters have some good in them and yet they can be real self-centered jerks. By the end of the book, everyone is afforded his or her own individual claim to the reader’s interest and sympathy. This isn’t a mythical heroic family — instead it is a highly recognizable family comprised of individuals with a common history and mutual responsibilities. Even when things aren’t going well and a bleak sorrow overwhelms them, there is a momentum. Things will continue to happen to this family, and some of those things will be good.
I loved this book.