McHugh’s debut novel is an impressive thriller covering a coming-of-age crisis for Lucy, a seventeen year old growing up in a close knit rural town of the Ozarks, and the tragic history of her mother Lila, who mysteriously disappeared while Lucy was still a baby. When a classmate and minor friend goes missing and subsequently turns up dead, Lucy begins to investigate the crime, drawing her to truths about her town and family that have lied hidden, barely beneath the surface, and revelations about her mother’s life and disappearance.
The novel is told in two parts, the first alternating chapters between the points of view of Lucy and flash-backs in the view of her mother, Lila. Readers are thereby introduced to the cast of characters, many spanning across both time periods, until the second part when the point of view cast is expanded to the secondary characters of each period. The expansion serves to relate plot points out of the protagonists experiences, but also helps to lend greater complexity and understanding to some of the secondary characters who previously come across as largely one-dimensional and utterly unsympathetic. While the expansion of view in the second part was a bit surprising, the story would have had trouble succeeding by keeping things limited to Lucy and Lila.
“The Weight of Blood” is only nominally a mystery. The ‘bad guys’ of the novel are clear rather early on, and the only mysteries lie in the precise details of the crimes and the precise fate of Lila. Instead of mystery, the lure of this novel rests with its characters and setting, and the themes woven into them. Physically and spiritually similar, Lila and Lucy differ dramatically in their pasts and ‘present’ conditions. Raised in foster care and disfunction, driftless and exploited, Lila elicits the reader’s sympathy with her intelligence, heart, and strength to find a settled life of happiness amid the distrust and hostility of rural America. Lucy, in contrast, has been doted upon, raised under the close love and support of her family and neighbors, relatively ignorant of the ways of the world, but with a desire to explore. Lucy is largely sheltered, and the novel in a large part is about the opening up of her world as she reaches adulthood. Opening it up to the reality of boys and sex and opening it up to the realization that her loving town and family are not all perfect and good, but that terrible things go on which people she loves and respects have either perpetrated, or allowed happen while turning a blind eye.
The revelation that her family has dark secrets brings up the other major theme of the novel, distinct from the ‘coming-of-age’ aspects. And the novel is perfectly named for this other theme, the weight of blood. Once Lucy has come to knowledge of adulthood and her innocent, naive views of her family and town are shattered, she then most decide what to do about these secrets her family holds. Not only does Lucy have to deal with this issue, but so does her father, and by extension the entire ‘family’ of this small Ozark town. The ties between blood relations, the degrees to which we as humans are willing to forgive, to look past, or to ignore faults and evils in our kin is at the heart of what McHugh is writing here. In a small town where everyone knows each other’s business, how can horrible, evil crime occur without people knowing about it? Because they lie to themselves, they ignore it, they look away, they explain it away; that is far easier than having to turn on your kin, on someone you love, and who has been a vital support throughout your own life. These human social complexities in the background of the plot in this novel are what make it truly special.
The final piece of McHugh’s writing that makes “The Weight of Blood” a special book is her insight and appreciation for the Ozark setting. The dialogue in the novel is okay, not stellar, and at times even sounds as if spoken by Captain Exposition. But the descriptions are lovely, with McHugh vividly painting the settings so that it is almost a character unto itself controlling the lives of those that populate it. Set beside other chapters relating inhumanity and brutality, the beauty of the Ozarks makes a nice contrast in the novel.