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Mercy House


Mercy House

Women all over Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York know Mercy House. Run by a group of “progressive” nuns, it provides a safe haven for women escaping abusive men, dangerous living situations and, often, themselves. Leading them is Sister Evelyn, an older nun with a dark history of her own --- one that not only helps her empathize with her charges, but propels her forward with the grit of a woman who has seen things.

In MERCY HOUSE, Alena Dillon’s powerful debut novel, readers will follow along as Mercy House faces its most terrifying event yet --- the stern, watchful eye of the Church. Battling her own demons, her girls’ fears, criminal elements from the outside and corruption from within, Evelyn must have faith not only in her religion, but in herself, if she is to save Mercy House.

At the start of the book, Evelyn is awakened once again to the knock of a desperate young girl escaping a violent man. Though she is old, tired and has more body to move around than she used to have, Evelyn is dedicated to her cause and quickly welcomes in Lucia, even giving up her own bed so that the girl can enjoy what is likely her first restful sleep in a while. When morning comes, Evelyn is on the case --- half social worker, half detective --- as she questions thugs, homeless men and local criminals to learn the history behind Lucia’s abuse. What she discovers is as startling as it is terrifying: Lucia has been abused by her boyfriend, Angel, who just so happens to be a leading member of a violent street gang. Evelyn shudders when she remembers the initiation rite: murdering a stranger.

"Written with heart, compassion and incredibly strong prose, MERCY HOUSE is an impressive first novel from a promising talent. Dillon has a long career ahead of her."

As Evelyn and her sisters take measures to keep Lucia and their other charges safe, readers see that Evelyn is plucky, inventive and full of gumption. Her faith is more tenuous than you might expect from one who has taken such serious vows --- she longs for a cold beer, laughs at jokes about sex, and converses with criminals in their own languages and shorthands. But she is thoroughly devoted to her cause: protecting those who need God most. In this way, she seems to define Christianity in its most pure form, and yet the patriarchal Vatican has begun to crack down on sisterhoods. The same organization that has excused pedophiles is now coming for the blood of its female members --- and with her dark past, brash manner and charitable yet questionable acts in her community, Evelyn has brought the eye of the Church upon Mercy House. Enter Bishop Richard Hawkins.

Bishop Hawkins is known to Evelyn and her sisters as a man who means business. Given that the sisters have frowned upon ways to support the girls they house, and the fact that they are currently providing a safe haven for, among others, a brash prostitute, Evelyn fears for the community she has built and the congregation she has found in even the darkest corners of her beloved Bed-Stuy. And even worse, Hawkins knows the truth behind every last one of Evelyn’s slip-ups.

I believe it is easy for readers to be turned away by a novel dealing with faith. Believer or not, it is too complicated for most works of fiction to handle seamlessly without coming off as preachy. But MERCY HOUSE is a different sort of book altogether. Dillon crafts her prose with such pitch-perfect suspense and dialogue that it reads more like a whodunit, propelling readers along as Evelyn tackles big baddies, cares for the weak and nurses her own tragic backstory. She is, in every definition of the word, a literal superhero. Dillon has infused her with such wit, ingenuity and all-encompassing empathy that even the most atheistic of readers will have faith in her and her motives.

Alternating chapters share the backstories of the female residents of Mercy House, from Mei-Lin, who was raped by a family member, to doe-eyed Katrina, who was tortured by a foster father, and, finally, Lucia, who struggles to see a way out of a life that seems predestined to destroy her. Dillon crafts her characters with an unflinching but sensitive eye --- her descriptions of violence are never gratuitous, even when they expose the worst of humanity. And through it all, our fearless leader Evelyn bears the tremendous emotional weight not only of her girls, but of her sisters and her past.

Dillon has spun a thoroughly engaging and compelling plot line in MERCY HOUSE. I was immediately taken by Evelyn and adored her sharp, witty inner monologue, as well as the dialogue she shared with her fellow sisters --- often over cigarettes. I do feel, though, that Dillon gives away too much of Evelyn’s history too soon. With her sharp eye and keen mind --- not to mention some serious detective skills --- Evelyn felt very much like Sherlock, Batman or even Dr. House, but this sense of suspense and tension was often overpowered by Dillon telling more than she showed.

Weaving together faith and advocacy is not always easy, and Dillion’s protagonist presents the full breadth of the complications implicit in trying to both live a Christian life and be a Christian. Written with heart, compassion and incredibly strong prose, MERCY HOUSE is an impressive first novel from a promising talent. Dillon has a long career ahead of her.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 14, 2020

Mercy House
by Alena Dillon

  • Publication Date: February 11, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062914804
  • ISBN-13: 9780062914804