The Heaven of Mercury by Brad Watson

Fractured beauty in the Mississippi heat
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Brad Watson has set his superb second novel in a small Mississippi city near the Gulf of Mexico. The heat, damp, whisky, bigotry and family skulduggery suggest juicy Southern Gothic. Although The Heaven of Mercury is born of that tradition, it transcends its parentage.

Finus Bates has loved the delectable Birdie Wells all his life. Despite a rare display of youthful bravado, he loses her to Earl Urquhart, a handsome alpha male from a family of notorious delinquents, who bullies her into matrimony. Finus is civilised and easy-going, but hesitant and detached. Unlike his rival, his interests extend beyond himself. Now 92, he is a local celebrity and town historian, editing the newspaper and hosting a radio show. Obituaries are his speciality, and as the story opens, he's about to write Birdie's.

The novel teems with vivid characters: the main families, the undertaker Parnell Grimes and his etheral wife; Aunt Vish, Frank and Creasie, descendants of slaves, plus children and ancestors. Watson tracks them from the 1880s to the present, creating a social universe in which dreams materialise and ghosts converse with the living.

Watson's is a generous spirit, and none of his flawed characters - save Papa Junius Urquhart - is denied a redeeming feature. He has a special affection for the indigenous humour and crack-brained wisdom of the very old. Racism is treated matter-of-factly with no false piety, rendering it all the more repulsive. The intricate structure plays with flashbacks, and the real meshes with the supernatural as time slides past itself like sheets of oiled glass.

Watson confronts change and loss, the flourishing and decay of the body, Southern society and nature. Rarely can a novelist have written so movingly about what Parnell calls "Death's role in the world". He is burdened with the guilt of his childhood crime and the secret of his father's real business with the government, and with Aunt Vish.

Watson also demonstrates a singular understanding of what women endure because of sex and its consequences. The account of Creasie's miscarriage and her simultaneous terror of being fired - because she's forced to use Birdie's toilet - is harrowing and tragic.

The language is racy and colloquial, delivered in a Southern telegraphese in which sentences tend to lose their subjects and verbs, rolling and swinging like the Mississippi accent. Shamelessly gorgeous prose becomes suddenly hymn-like, and there are modernist passages of fractured beauty.

Only in the last few pages did I grasp the unappealing title. Mercury exists within a penumbra of the collective past, the heaven of which its inhabitants are unaware until they encounter it in dreams, hallucinations, ghosts and memories. Finus recalls his grandfather taking him at dawn to a tidal basin to observe a pair of ivory bills - birds even then near extinction - winging towards the Gulf. He tells Finus to fix their precious image in his mind, because he will not see their like again. Memory preserves life.

The incident reveals a breadth of vision that makes most fashionable contemporary novels seem shabby and solipsistic. Watson exceeds them because he has a great heart, and this great heart has made him a great writer.

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