Review: Little Mercies; Heather Gudenkauf

“You have to look for the little mercies, the small kindnesses and good that come from the terrible.” (4 stars)

Source- review copy

Published June 24th 2014 by Harlequin MIRA

I read the Kindle edition. The paperback is 320 pages

Complex yet heartbreaking, Little Mercies is a compelling story about the very worst side of humanity, about motherhood, justice and about family. It is a powerfully told novel about what happens when a devoted mother finds her life and the lives of those around her torn apart after she makes a devastating mistake.

Social Worker Ellen has seen things that no one should ever see and unfortunately knows first hand the atrocities that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another. Also a devoted mum of three, Ellen loves her husband and beautiful children more than anything but sometimes struggles to balance her hectic career and personal life. One day however she makes a horrific mistake and in one distracted moment everything is torn apart- she even finds herself caught in amongst the mechanics of the social care system in which she herself has worked for so long.

At the same time, ten-year-old Jenny, a survivor of abuse, suddenly finds herself out on the streets. Distrustful of social workers and with no place to go, when she and Ellen’s lives inexplicably intertwine, neither of them can comprehend just how much they will be able to help each other.

I have read all of Gudenkauf’s work to date and thoroughly enjoyed it. She has the ability to craft believable, sympathetic characters with issues that the reader can understand and create plots that have a lot of depth with some relatable themes. Though on the surface it may seem like it, Little Mercies is not only a story about child abuse and social work, but also a story about just what it means to be a parent and about atoning for your mistakes. It is about survival and about hope- a thread of hope that the author keeps alive throughout this story.

Ellen finds herself in a nightmare situation and her feelings of guilt, helplessness and anxiety are very well-portrayed, as well as her sense of humiliation and indignity once she finds herself placed under investigation- a situation in which she usually finds herself on the other foot in investigating others. It was interesting to read about social work from this perspective, as well as the fictional cases that Ellen herself had dealt with. Though social work has such a negative stigma attached to it, ultimately there are people out there who do want to help, yet when Ellen is banned from seeing her own child, she comprehends that perhaps some situations can happen to anyone- even her. No parent is perfect and though there are absolute monsters out there who commit despicably evil acts against children, simple accidents or mistakes can and do happen. In those cases, whilst it may be easy to judge and point the finger of blame, those responsible also need help and support.

Other themes in this well-written story include the relationships between mothers and daughters. For me, the stand out best character in this book was Maudene- Ellen’s own mother. Her path crosses with that of Jenny’s and from the start her compassion towards others is evident. I did think perhaps some of her actions were somewhat questionable though- and perhaps a bit far-fetched.

Also for me, though it was engaging, I did think that Jenny’s story detracted somewhat from Ellen’s, too. It wasn’t until the very end of this story that it became evident just how they were connected to one another, yet by this point the storyline felt a bit too much like everything was happening all at once and became a bit rushed. This impacted on the ending somewhat too, which I felt could have been drawn out a little bit more than it was.

Though not my favourite book by this author, I still found this to be an engrossing, important story with some very relevant messages about hope, responsibility and the power of human kindness. I would recommend this well paced family drama for fans of Diane Chamberlain.

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