Review: Attica Locke’s Pleasantville is a potent blend of political and courtroom dramas

AtticaLockeTo an avid reader, one of the prime services of literature awards, in particular the long and short lists, is as guide through the forests of books published around the world. If I hadn’t studied the long list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction I might easily have completely passed by Pleasantville by American writer Attica Locke. If I hadn’t read Pleasantville I would have missed what I know will remain one of my top books of the year.

Part political drama, part crime and courtroom thriller, Pleasantville is set in 1996 in the run-up to the mayoral elections in Houston, Texas. Axel Hathorne, former police chief and scion of a powerful black political family, is well placed against his opponent, the current white female Attorney General Sandy Wolcott. The prize of being the city’s first black mayor is tantalizingly within his reach.

As on many previous occasions in the city, the heart of the political joust centres around Electoral District 259, a black community created in the ‘50s to provide good house, education and amenities to a rising black middle class that found itself still on the outside. As grass roots activism there pushed for change, Pleasantville consistently provided a consolidated black voting voice. But times are again changing. Comfortably off blacks no longer feel the need to set up home together to protect their aspirations. Race is no longer the political glue that holds the vote together.

When a young woman disappears from a street corner it is first linked to the previous APunsolved murders of two other young women. But when it is discovered she was a volunteer for the electoral campaigns, including the distribution of destabilising campaign leaflets, attention turns to Hathorne’s nephew and campaign manager. It’s a great twist. The city now faces the situation of the current AG’s department investigating the relative of her opponent.

Smelling dirty politics, Hathorne’s powerbroker father calls in lawyer Jay Porter to handle the case. Porter, who appeared in Locke’s first novel Black Water Rising which was short listed for the Orange Prize, found local fame as the activist lawyer who won a large class action by residents against a polluting plastics company. But the case has stalled on the level of compensation payments. Porter is debilitated by the recent death of his wife and the increasingly strained relationship with his daughter.

Despite his reluctance Porter finds himself drawn further and further into the murky case and discovers that some people are playing very dirty politics that stretch way beyond the electoral boundary. The backwater life he had eased himself into explodes into violence and danger.

Locke paints a picture so vivid we could be watching the TV news, weaving real-life events through the fictional plot. All the characters are utterly believable particularly the quietly determined Porter. Refreshingly, she wastes no time pussyfooting around the race issue identifying both black and white characters with an elegant directness.

Admittedly, I’ve not read all the books on the Baileys’ Prize long list which includes some high-hitting writers like Kate Atkinson (for A God in Ruins), Elizabeth Strout (for My Name is Lucy Barton) and Hanya Yanagihara (for A Little Life). But I can’t believe that Pleasantville will not make it onto the shortlist due to be released in April.

Pleasantville is published by Serpent’s Tail.

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