Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Kate Cantrill, Fri., Dec. 19, 2003
The Madamby Julianna Baggott
Atria Books, 296 pp., $24
The prose in Julianna Baggott's new novel is not meant to be read so much as danced to. In this, her third novel, Baggott joins her poetic voice with her consummate sense of story to craft a jazzy, soaring tale of the lives of women in West Virginia, circa 1924. Alma, abandoned by her deluded husband who has taken off for Florida in search of something nonexistent, must scrape together a living from what little she has in order to care for her children. She decides to become the Madam of a whorehouse -- an oddly gentle place where patrons and employers divulge their weaknesses through lusty urges for sex, opium, and camaraderie. By choosing to set herself apart from the other residents of this coal-slicked town, Alma inadvertently grows ever more a part of it.
Baggott, who has also published a book of poetry (This Country of Mothers), has such a fiercely stunning command of words that the reader is grabbed with lovely sounds and tumbles through the story. She strides from one point of view to another, but never leaves Alma, our protagonist, for too long; this sense of rhythm conveys a self-assured narrative voice. It's a challenge not to mouth her phrases: "beautiful bow-bellied cows with udders so full she sometimes can see the droplets of milk pearling on the teats." She makes horrible things sound nearly lovely: "She's always heard of the people who huddle up in the drafty, rat-skittering rooms." She makes an opium high sound like something to be feared and strived for all at once: "She held her breath and imagined an imbricate skin of ice, the catfish cruising the river bottom, their whiskers thick as piano wire, and how it would be to die, let the water take you in, as the ice above her head healed over."
The characters in The Madam are severe and injured women who coexist under a delicate balance of love and anger, care and hurt. Although it is decidedly a fictive story, Baggott has based the situation on her own family history, which might be why these pages flow so hot with urgency. There is a sense that this story has been here forever, only now it is gorgeously screaming to be heard.