The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop – Review

Title: The Mercy Seat

Author: Elizabeth H. Winthrop

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton



Summary: from Amazon

As the sun begins to set over Louisiana one October day in 1943, a young black man faces the final hours of his life: at midnight, eighteen-year-old Willie Jones will be executed by electric chair for raping a white girl – a crime some believe he did not commit.

In a tale taut with tension, events unfold hour by hour from the perspectives of nine people involved. They include Willie himself, who knows what really happened, and his father, desperately trying to reach the town jail to see his son one last time; the prosecuting lawyer, haunted by being forced to seek the death penalty against his convictions, and his wife, who believes Willie to be innocent; the priest who has become a friend to Willie; and a mother whose only son is fighting in the Pacific, bent on befriending her black neighbours in defiance of her husband.


The Mercy Seat is a different, compelling and thought-provoking read. The book takes an unusual approach as it begins after the crucial events that have led to Will’s incarceration and impending death. The reader is given so many different characters points of view and all of them have differing feelings and opinions on what has happened. At first the multitude of characters is a little overwhelming and working out how everyone relates to each other is slightly difficult. However as the story progresses the characters become more clear and much easier to differentiate between. The Mercy Seat covers a very short period of time as the execution looms closer and closer. Despite this short timescale, so much happens and so many contrasting emotions are at play that this feels like such a full and consistently compelling novel.

The writing in The Mercy Seat is something quite special I think. Almost immediately there is an underlying tension to the prose – an uneasy, discomfiting feeling that pervades every chapter and every character. The atmosphere of the writing sort of feels like a coiled spring about to explode and ignite trouble of some sort. The Louisiana setting is beautifully done and so incredibly evocative. The reader gets such a strong sense of the intensity of the oppressive southern heat, the setting is kind of like a character itself.

I think this book is masterfully done in so many ways and I have very few criticisms. However, I do wish that we had gotten more of Will’s point of view. The book centres around the circumstances he is in and his chapters are so emotional and achingly sad but unfortunately a bit brief. I just wish that there was even more from him and his family. Another thing I think needs to be mentioned is the ending. I won’t give away anything about it but I will just say I think the ending is quite divisive. Personally I think it is well done and in keeping with what the author has achieved with this book but I can see why a reader may be frustrated by it.

Overall I think The Mercy Seat is an important novel which feels so real and intense. It is a hard book to read at times because of how hopeless certain aspects of the story make the reader feel but it is imperative that books like this are both written and read. I will definitely be looking out for more of this author’s work because I think this book is skilful and shocking and yet full of restraint and subtlety. Nothing here is done purely for shock factor, it shows the worst and best of human nature and I really hope it gets the audience it deserves.

The Mercy Seat is out now.

I received this e-arc from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

2 thoughts on “The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop – Review

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