THE SHARP EDGE OF MERCY vividly depicts a young nurse’s personal, financial and ethical struggles in 1893 NYC

The Sharp Edge of Mercy

By Connie Hertzberg Mayo

Heliotrope Press: May 6, 2022

$18.00, 290 pages

If you’re looking for a “sleeper” novel instead of reading the latest overhyped book that you can’t seem to escape on social media, The Sharp Edge of Mercy is a good place to start. Connie Hertzberg Mayo’s second novel (after 2016’s The Island of Worthy Boys) pulled me in from the first pages and remained a completely absorbing and thought-provoking read for the next 280 pages.

Set in New York City in 1893, The Sharp Edge of Mercy is the story of 18-year-old Lillian Dolan, a newly hired nurse assistant at the New York Cancer Hospital. She has fled her home after a dispute with her mother, taking her younger sister Marie, who has been left disabled by scarlet fever. She rents a tiny apartment on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen and has ambitions of being a nurse. She has her hands full learning on the job and finding a caregiver for her sister. Fortunately, her older cousin Michael is her guardian angel and helps her make rent and sort out other difficulties.

Early in her training, she meets Jupiter, a Black man from Alabama, who runs the hospital’s basement crematorium. (One of her first tasks was to deliver a dead body to him.) They develop a tentative friendship and Jupiter becomes the source of helpful practical advice in Lillian’s early days.

Through Lillian’s experiences at the hospital and beyond, the novel explores medical ethics, sexual mores, and race, class, and ethnic relations. Her work ethic, cast iron stomach, and critical thinking eventually make an impression on a couple of the nurses and the new head surgeon, Dr. Bauer. But as she makes her way at the hospital, she finds herself enmeshed in workplace power struggles. At the same time, Michael is introducing the sheltered Lillian to the realities of turn-of-the-century New York City, forcing her to reconsider some of her strict Catholic viewpoints.

Mayo was woven a complex plot that had me wondering what would happen next to Lillian, Michael, Marie’s caregiver, and Jupiter. The crux of the novel involves Dr. Bauer’s willingness to meet with Lillian in his office after work to answer her hard questions about patient treatment and the practice of medicine. But Michael warns the naive Lillian that Dr. Bauer must have an ulterior motive and to be on her guard.

There is also a satisfying subplot in which Michael struggles to sort out his identity and his path forward. Finally, there is more to Jupiter’s presence in New York City and the hospital than it first appeared. The three plot lines converge neatly, and the conclusion remains in doubt until the last pages. The Sharp Edge of Mercy is not a suspense novel per se, but the ethical, moral, and power struggles at its heart generate many questions that will keep you turning the pages.

Lillian is a compelling protagonist, a young woman of her time, yet in many ways ahead of her time. Her open heart and strong sense of right and wrong serve her well in a New York City that chewed people up, especially the poor and working class. She is such a strong character that one hopes to see a sequel. The conclusion offers several potential paths for Lillian and her friends and family to pursue.

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