Author Jennifer Haigh chronicles both sides of the abortion debate in ‘Mercy Street’



When a novelist tackles a big, divisive issue, there’s a risk the outcome will read like a polemic. This is not the case with Jennifer Haigh’s fiction. His previous novel, “Heat and Light,” about the devastating effects of fracking on a rural Pennsylvania town, was not only well-researched, it contained multi-faceted characters and plots, qualities that made him featured on many lists of the best books of 2016.

His new novel “Mercy Street(released Feb. 1), deals with the indicted and — given recent state and Supreme Court rulings — very timely abortion issue. “Mercy Street” joins other novels that in recent years have examined this subject from different angles, such as the philosophical “A Book of American Martyrs” by Joyce Carol Oates, the dystopian “Red Clocks” by Leni Zumas, and the nuanced “The mothers.

Set in Boston in the winter and spring of 2015, “Mercy Street” offers an intricate depiction of the many ways a woman makes her decision to continue or terminate her pregnancy, while capturing the broader political and cultural tumult that has preceded the 2016 presidential campaign. To do this, Haigh chronicles some pivotal events in the lives of people on both sides of the abortion issue. It’s a novel that feels created with a thin, small gauge: the four main characters aren’t national leaders or even people who wield a fraction of that power.

Jennifer Haigh (courtesy Joanna Eldredge Morrissey)

Claudia works at Mercy Street, a women’s health clinic near Boston Common, where she manages helpline volunteers and offers in-person informational counseling. (The clinic’s official name is Women’s Options; Bostonians simply call it Mercy Street.) At 43, Claudia is happiest in relationships with men who want as much space as she does. Raised in a rough Maine town by a single mother (like “a lot of poor people, she had been raised as a teenager”), she often sees her mother in the younger clients, pregnant girls “half-educated, destitute “.

Anthony and Victor are clumsy, menacing foot soldiers on the fringes of the anti-abortion movement. Timmy is a weed dealer whose life intersects with others in progressively surprising ways. In “Mercy Street,” Haigh has created a world that spins on an axis of random but consecutive events, a romance of small moments that only seem significant later.

If you lived in Greater Boston in 2015, you probably remember the relentless Northeasts of that year, which set records for snowfall, school closures and miles of roads plowed. Yet the start of this winter offered no indication of what lay ahead; January was a month of dry, calm days.

Haigh, who lives in Boston, is the author of the short story collection “News from Heaven” and five previous novels. His work has won awards including the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Massachusetts Book Award and the PEN New England Award in Fiction.

Haigh adds evocative local color to weather descriptions: from how Bostonians save parking spaces (with furniture) to, of course, traffic. When Claudia is in her car, she sometimes thinks to herself that “driving in Boston was like being inside a video game, a closed system with its own inner logic”.

Haigh also bases the story on background legal and medical information, while providing some social context. Claudia knows that callers to their hotline are only looking for information, because “by the time a woman Googled ‘Boston abortion’…her decision had already been made.” Surprisingly, most callers to the clinic are polite; even “those who had been raped by a date…were…by reflex eager to please”. After nine years on Mercy Street, Claudia also understands the heartache of a woman ending a wanted pregnancy due to an untenable medical condition, knowing that “names had been chosen…baby showers planned”.

She also knows that protesters standing outside the clinic would not acknowledge any of this, or that many women rely on the clinic for regular medical appointments. Protesters have always been “a daily nuisance” kept 50 feet away; now with the changed laws they come straight to the front door to harass customers.

The cover of Jennifer Haigh's new novel

Even with a security guard and outside security cameras, the office atmosphere at the clinic became increasingly tense. The way the various threats begin to pile up against the clinic seems to echo the gradual but lasting changes to many institutions that were previously unrestricted: schools, office buildings, places of worship. The heavy new normal of American life.

Earlier in the winter, a suspicious package had been found in one of the clinic’s toilets. Although it was harmless, Claudia found herself unable to sleep and eventually decided she needed help relaxing. She turns to Timmy, a weed dealer and ex-marine with a thriving business out of his apartment; they forge a comfortable, situational friendship.

Anthony, one of Timmy’s other clients, is on long term disability following a construction accident and is looking for a purpose. He longs for what he sees as the glory days of Catholicism, when churches were packed to hear Mass in Latin, and being a Catholic was “not an easy laugh for late-night comedians”. Once a week, he joins other protesters in Mercy Street. For him, abortion is “something you were supposed to care about, like the national debt”.

That’s not what Victor, Anthony’s online protest coordinator, thinks about abortion. Known to Anthony only by his screen name “Excelior11”, Victor is a Vietnamese veterinarian and former long-haul trucker. He still listens to a lot of talk radio, whose resentful far-right views validate his own. He used to spend his retirement driving around the North East, putting up homemade signs with messages like “ALL LIFE IS SACRED”. Although for Victor, a certain life is sacred. He is outraged by disturbing stories on the radio and on the internet of many white women choosing to have only one baby, or none at all. Because of their selfishness, the white race will soon be “at the mercy of everyone else.”

Victor has created a “Hall of Shame” website that displays photos of white women entering abortion clinics. It only took one request on 8chan for volunteers across the country to start sending him photos to post on the site. Anthony is one of those volunteers.

Victor impacts women’s health clinics across the country, all from his home computer in Pennsylvania. (In a case of overlapping fictional worlds, Victor is the half-brother of a character in Haigh’s novel “Heat and Light.”)

They’re two very different men, but Victor and Anthony share traits that now seem familiar from reporting on white supremacy and other groups: They yearn for a mythical time when everyone knew their place in the world. They spend more time with strangers online than with anyone in real life. Unfortunately, because these two main characters have little inner life, some of their passages can feel thin, even when the action heats up.

But overall, “Mercy Street” is an effective portrait of a pivotal moment, when increasingly sophisticated technology exponentially amplified the bitterness fueled by widening economic and cultural divides. It’s a romance of big events and many small, minor moments that build on each other in compelling and haunting ways. “Mercy Street” shows how the resulting cumulative rolling began to alter everyday life in fundamental ways.

Jennifer Haigh will discuss “Mercy Street” at a virtual event hosted by Harvard Bookstore February 3. She will be in person at Wellesley Books February 10.

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