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Ozarks contribute a dread-soaked setting to 'The Weight of Blood'

Until a few years ago, the only Ozark novel I could even name was Wilson Rawls' 1961 dead dog classic, "Where the Red Fern Grows." Then in 2010 Daniel Woodrell's "Winter's Bone" was made into an Oscar-nominated movie featuring Jennifer Lawrence as a meth mountain proto-Katniss, putting Woodrell and the bleak Ozarks (not to mention Jennifer Lawrence) into the pop culture consciousness. "Gone Girl," which you and your mother read in 2012, also features a prominent foray into Ozark territory, furthering the idea that the region is having a literary moment.

With her riveting debut, "The Weight of Blood," Laura McHugh makes a strong bid at cementing a new tradition of regional crime fiction while keeping tourism low in the Ozarks.

Her novel takes place in Henbane, population 707, a fictional Missouri town that feels like a faithful clone of some other midcountry dark spot with frontier rules. This powerful sense of place is the anchor of "The Weight of Blood." The well-drawn townspeople and oppressive, dread-soaked atmosphere sprout from the soil of Henbane.

The novel cold opens with a mentally handicapped teenager chopped up and strewn in a tree (called, charmingly, for the rest of the book, "Cheri's tree"). A few months after her death, there have been no real leads in her case, and the shock of the murder has largely faded away. Cheri was unloved by almost all but 17-year-old Lucy Dane, her neighbor and only friend.

Lucy is working for her Uncle Crete, cleaning out one of his shady trailers, when she discovers a worthless chipped butterfly necklace she'd passed on to Cheri, a gift that had become one of her dead friend's most prized possessions. The discovery is a fresh lead that also fills her with guilt, and she resolves to pursue truth and justice on Cheri's behalf. She gets help from friends and neighbors and a sexy son of Henbane who serves as both love interest and sidekick.

A dearth of parental supervision also works to her advantage. Her father, Carl, is frequently absent for work, and her mother, Lila, disappeared when she was a baby. Lucy keeps a heartbreaking list in her journal titled "Things I Know About My Mother" that is "almost a full page, including a strand of hair." As she searches for Cheri's killer, she also learns everything she can about Lila, her habits and personality as well as her fate. Her quest is a doleful sort of coming of age that adds a special layer of torment to her story.

By the end of the book, we know more about Lila than Lucy ever will — Lila is the secondary protagonist, and almost half of "The Weight of Blood" is devoted to the events between her arrival in Henbane and her disappearance into Old Scratch Cavern. The townspeople see beautiful Lila as a man-eating witch from the distant land of Iowa, and she has few allies when the native evils start to close in around her.

"The Weight of Blood" alternates between Lucy's and Lila's storylines, making use of multiple viewpoints and narrators. Lucy and Lila narrate most of the story, while several townspeople contribute third-person chapters. Some of them are brought in for single revelations, called on as needed, like witnesses in a trial.

The transitions are well timed and seamless, and it doesn't take long for the narratives to converge, despite taking place almost 20 years apart. Henbane appears to be so immune to change that the passage of time is almost irrelevant. The cast of characters is identical across eras, and as the novel progresses, we get to know the townspeople — their superstitions, hostilities and affections; their coarse, unsentimental lives, of guns and snake bites and squirrel for dinner.

The prose is strong, with evocative paint strokes in all the right places. McHugh is an artful, efficient writer who tells her story in vicious blows. (Example: "Cheri had been buried at Baptist Grove in a child's casket — which was cheaper and plenty big to hold what was left of her.") The plot advances while exploring heavy themes like sexual violence and the ties of family (i.e. blood, weight of) with occasional bursts of romance to lighten the gothic mood. The novel suffers slightly in the final act — the horrors become implausible given the established constraints; the climax coincides rather usefully with a Major Weather Event — but its flaws are outweighed by its significant achievements.

McHugh has crafted a sharp, haunting tale of blood in the Ozarks, as substantial as it is pleasurable to read.

Cha is the author of "Follow Her Home."


The Weight of Blood
A novel

Laura McHugh
Spiegel & Grau: 320 pp., $26


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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