REVIEW: SYCAMORE ROW BY JOHN GRISHAM

SYCAMORE ROW

Author: John Grisham
H & S Fiction RRP $39.99 (Hardback)
Review: Monique Mulligan

Did you read the book A Time to Kill by John Grisham? Did you watch the movie? Here’s a reminder:

Sycamore Row brings back Jake Brigance in a story set three years after the Carl Lee Hailey trial that made him a household name in Ford County. With his house destroyed by the Klan during that trial, Jake is living with his family in a rented house, struggling to make ends meet on money earned from minor cases and petty disputes. Not all lawyers are rich, it seems. When he is named the attorney for the estate of Seth Hubbard, a man who hung himself off a sycamore tree, Jake is stunned: Seth has left ninety per cent of his vast, secret fortune to his housemaid and none to his children or grandchildren. It’s legal dynamite.

‘Fight them, Mr Brigance. To the bitter end. We must prevail.’ 

Seth’s family lawyers up fast (at one count there are nearly one dozen lawyers all wanting their piece). The will Jake has lodged is a holographic will, handwritten and not witnessed; such wills can be upheld in court, but there is another will, properly prepared, signed and witnessed, that leaves much of his estate to his family. The scene is set for a showdown, with the will contest bringing out vultures on all sides, as well as an even more touchy subject: race. For Lettie Lang is black and Jake will be hard-pressed to convince the jurors to let a black woman become one of the richest women in the state. All the jurors have to decide is whether Seth’s handwritten will is valid … but what Jake also wants to know is why Seth hung himself on Sycamore Row, what Seth and his brother witnessed as children that  ‘no human should ever see’, and why Lettie is the beneficiary of the $24-million estate. 

A Time to Kill is my favourite Grisham novel (and I enjoyed the movie as well) and it was this book that set me on a path of reading Grisham’s novels for some time (although none of them ever matched that one). Sycamore Row brings back Jake, a character I liked, and sets him up in an almost unwinnable situation; there’s plenty of tension as the reader wonders, alongside Jake and his team, whether he can pull it off. There’s also the inevitable racial tension, which in Mississippi is bound with the law, as memories of slavery casts a lingering shadow. There’s the tension as Jake struggles to lift himself out of the hole he’s in financially due to clever insurance lawyers, wondering if this case could just be the ticket. And then there’s the question of why Seth made a new will. The reader finds out eventually, and of course, it’s all linked to what Seth and his brother witnessed, but I wondered afterwards what triggered Seth into changing his will in the first place. All in all, it’s a read full of tension that doesn’t really let up to the end.

Some readers have commented that the book is set in the past – in 1988 – when they expected it to be more contemporary. I can’t really see the problem. I’m glad it picked up when it did – it answered questions like, would Jake and Carla’s marriage survive? Was Jake in the big time now, a corporate lawyer making bucketloads of money? Or, did he hold on to the integrity that made him such a great character, and keep helping the common people? My verdict: a great read, probably even better if you watch A Time to Kill or read the book first, just to get the back story. As for me, I’m going to read A Time to Kill again, just because.

Available from good bookstores and Hachette Australia. This copy was courtesy of Hachette. Reading this on a phone? Scan this to add to your Goodreads list:

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Bookish treat: I found Turkish Delight in my drawer. It in no way suits the book, but it’s delicious.