Mercy House, by Alena Dillon

Trigger warning for domestic violence and rape.

There is a house in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York, where abused women can seek refuge. It’s run by nuns, but this trio of nuns are more likely to offer Reiki and tea than dogma and lectures. Because of their unorthodox ways, the nuns who run this house don’t tell their Mother Superior or the local priest everything. Unfortunately for these nuns, Alena Dillon’s Mercy House begins right before the hammer starts to fall. An old enemy of Sister Evelyn, the driving force behind Mercy House, has arrived to make things are all above Catholic board. It’s only a matter of time before everything gets shut down.

Sister Evelyn was always going to be a nun, due to a promise made by her father when her oldest brother’s life was in danger. Although she finds a purpose in begin a nun, a priest begins to repeatedly rape and emotionally abuse her. It’s only after Vatican II that Sister Evelyn starts to recover her sense of purpose. In the early 1980s, she launches Mercy House with two other nuns who understand that women who are subjected to all kinds of abuse need a safe place to heal and regroup. The project runs for more than two decades before the rapist priest, now a bishop, shows up to investigate. The first chapters, which establish Sister Evelyn’s character and the backstory of Mercy House, are intercut with chapters from the perspective of the women currently taking refuge in the House. These chapters are harrowing; I suspect some readers may be triggered by the details the women reveal.

Once all the pieces are in place, the plot begins to pick up. Sister Evelyn, her partners, and the women in the House plan how to save the place and its mission. Many chapters read like a bloody-minded game of cat and mouse as the women try to outwit the bishop, who is trying to outmaneuver the women. The emotional deck is heavily stacked in favor of the women. How can we not be on their side when all the men in the book are evil or too passive to challenge the status quo? This is not a subtle book. That said, I feel like bluntly telling a story like this is a particularly effective way to get readers to sit up and take notice. This book asks its readers, what could you do to help women who need it? Mercy House devotes all of its energy towards showing us the deep psychological effects of longterm abuse. It doesn’t care why men* hurt women.

Mercy House‘s ending is complicated—more complicated than I expected. Because the ending resists a happily ever after conclusion, I found that I liked this unsubtle book a lot more. To be honest, the lack of subtly about violent men is my only quibble about Mercy House. I loved the character of Sister Evelyn so much. She grows enormously over the course of the book, confronting issues that she had firmly ignored for so many years. This growth, her sense of humor, and her mixed attitude towards Catholicism meant that she completely stole the show for me.

Mercy House is an excellent choice for book groups that are willing to tackle the enormity of domestic violence and its effects. The rich female characters and the focus on these women’s experiences mean that there is a lot to talk about here.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

* There are women who abuse men, but this book doesn’t address this at all.

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