The Maid’s Version, by Daniel Woodrell
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
The Maid's Version
Woodrell builds the narrative in subtle layers of story, individual histories emerge and cross-reference, small town evolves. This is the US at the height of the Great Depression; old snobberies still have some currency. The wealthy close ranks. Alma works as a housemaid; her labour feeds her children. Added to her wages are the scraps from her employer’s table.
“She hated that she fed another man’s children before she fed her own. She cleared the supper table, the plates yet rife with food in this house of plenty, potatoes played with, bread crusts stacked on the tablecloth unwanted, meat bones set aside with enough shreds on them to set her own sons fighting one another for a chance to gnaw them clean and white.”
Set against the grim poverty of her daily existence is the delicate life of her employer, Mrs Glencross, a woman who is barely alive. She is the daughter of privilege, and it was she who selected her husband, a man with a poet’s soul if little honour.
In contrast to this apparent passivity is the vibrant Ruby DeGeer, Alma’s sister. She “didn’t mind breaking hearts, but she liked to shatter them coolly, with no ugly scenes of departure . . .”
Woodrell juxtaposes two very different kinds of women in Mrs Glencross and Ruby. Both have power. One is based on money, the other on sexual appeal. The narrative is both simple and complex. The characters appear to inhabit their close worlds of desire and aspiration, anger and remorse. It is obvious who began the fire and why, but this does not matter: the genius of this novel is in Woodrell’s elegiac exploration of it.
Throughout Winter’s Bone and in each of the marvellous stories of The Outlaw Album, it becomes clear that Woodrell’s vision is more deeply rooted in a sense of place than in place itself. The ritual of small-town mythology is evident here, even in the presence of the local preacher who seizes on the dance-hall tragedy as proof of his theories of sin and divine retribution.
The fire itself is described with an apocalyptic physicality: “A near portion of the sky founted an orange brilliance in a risen tower, heat bellowing as flames freshened in the breeze and grew, the tower of orange tilting, tossing about, and the sounds dancers let loose began to reach distant ears as anonymous wails and torture those nearby with their clarity of expression.”
Angry, tormented characters stalk the pages of this remarkable tale. Woodrell’s majestic gifts create an unforgettable impression of one woman’s life played out against a horrific crime that was never solved but remained to haunt all involved. Yet again Daniel Woodrell has created a wonder of power and barbaric grace.
Eileen Battersby is Irish Times literary correspondent