Bernice L. McFadden is the rare author who can write about unbearably suffering and not turn the reader off. Her latest book, Loving Donovan, dealt with such themes as child molestation, teen pregnancy, suicide and divorce, but also with love, hope and the quest for happiness. In her earlier novel, This Bitter Earth, the subject matter is equally difficult, including rape, murder, prostitution and drug addiction. But McFadden’s gift is drawing such interesting, compelling characters that you’re drawn to read forward, even when the going gets tough.
This Bitter Earth is a follow-up to her debut novel Sugar, and continues the story of Sugar Lacey, an ex-prostitute with a troubled past. Beginning with a startling sequence in which Sugar travels to her childhood home with the intention of committing suicide (she lies on the dilapidated house’s snow-covered porch, trying to freeze to death), McFadden packs the book with unforgettable images, tinged with hints of the supernatural.
Sugar escapes death, but hastens the eerie demise of the Lacey sisters, the three women who raised her. She eventually leaves their homes to seek out figures from her past -– first Mary, an older woman she once worked for, then Joe, a man she has recently discovered to be her father. Along the way, Sugar is haunted by the murder of her half-sister, Jude, and her own assault -– both at the hands of the same man.
There are many other characters along the way -– perhaps too many. McFadden’s biggest problem seems to be packing her stories with so many interesting characters that some get short shrift. The biggest casualty in this book is Mercy, Mary’s junkie granddaughter, whose addiction may have inadvertently led to Mary’s death. Sugar tries to help Mercy, who is silent for most of the novel, but is ultimately rejected by the girl.
Mercy is an intriguing character, but I never felt that she was fleshed out enough. We know that she and her grandmother adored each other (we learn through a flashback that Mercy’s mother was murdered), so the reason she turned to drugs is unclear. Mercy’s story also is left unresolved, and I was eager to learn more about her.
A smaller issue is that McFadden does assume that you’ve read Sugar, although if, like me, you haven’t, This Bitter Earth is still easy enough to follow. Ultimately, McFadden’s book is slightly unsatisfying, but still fascinating. Her characters are so packed with vibrant life that you yearn to learn more about them, even when the journey into their souls is painful.