The Maid’s Version, by Daniel Woodrell
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
The Maid's Version
Alma Dunahew, now in old age, her long witch-like hair touching the floor, her sanity ever in doubt, has had a hard life. Her husband died in a freak accident, two of her three sons met tragic ends and, most brutally of all, her wayward younger sister was burnt to death in a dance-hall explosion that was no accident.
By nature a stoic, Alma had worked hard since girlhood, but she had a story to which nobody would listen. Nobody, that is, until her grandson, the narrator, is dispatched to her side by his father, Alma’s lone surviving son, by way of a belated gesture of reconciliation.
Southern Gothic unleashes full fury in this masterful narrative from one of the finest writers at work. Daniel Woodrell, Ozark-born and -based, appears to have absorbed something elemental from the eerie plateau region of the central United States. He understands the essential menace deep within human nature and that the savage tends to stalk art at its most sublime. Woodrell’s fiction shares the torment of Théodore Géricault’s paintings.
The Maid’s Version, his first novel since the publication of his magnificent eighth novel, Winter’s Bone, follows the publication of a superb first collection of short stories, The Outlaw Album. To describe Woodrell as a great American writer is a lamentable understatement; this new novel is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy at his finest (as in The Orchard Keeper), of Richard Bausch’s Peace, Denis Johnson’s recent Train Dreams and Ron Rash’s extraordinary The Cove.
At the heart of Woodrell’s narrative is the fire that destroys the dance hall and the lives of its 42 victims. This appears to have been based on, or at least partly inspired by, a real disaster in Missouri in 1928. For Woodrell the motivation is a crime of passion, the vengeance of a weak man. The story is less a mystery than a slowly evolving study of a society in overdrive, Woodrell’s abiding motivation as an artist. His prose is a thing of hard beauty, simple, rhythmic, at times nuanced with biblical intensity that counters the curt verbal exchanges uttered by characters who are so often beyond caring. Alma still cares. Time has caused her to fester. It is this that sustains a novel that no reader is ever likely to forget.
Woodrell’s narrator begins his account with a vividly hypnotic image drawn, daringly, from the canon of the traditional fairy tale: “She frightened me at every dawn the summer I stayed with her. She’d sit on the edge of her bed, long hair down, down to the floor and shaking as she brushed and brushed . . . Her hair was as long as her story and she couldn’t walk when her hair was not woven into dense braids and pinned around and atop her head. Otherwise her hair dragged the floor like the train of a medieval gown and she had to gather it into a sheaf and coil it about her forearm several times to walk the floor without stepping on herself.”
The old woman is an unlikely princess, yet Woodrell has evoked brilliantly the idea of her as an ancient Rapunzel, trapped in the tower of her own misery and resentment. After the fire, Alma kisses each of the coffins, determined to bid farewell to her loved if exasperating sister, Ruby, who played fast and loose with her own sexual allure in a way that cost not only her life but also those of the other doomed dancers that night.
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