The Maid’s Version
Lovers of well-crafted prose will appreciate this new work by the author of Winter’s Bone. Daniel Woodrell gracefully achieves the difficult task of combining taut storytelling (164 pages) with a laconic style of narration that captures the ramblings of oral narrative. The setting is a small town in the Missouri Ozarks during Prohibition, a microcosm of jealousies, suspicions, old grudges, and prejudices, interspersed with moments of great generosity, heroism, and love.
Switching between first person for the protagonist, and third person for the rest, The Maid’s Version recounts how a young man, Alek, comes to spend the summer with Alma, his grandmother, in a town where tragedy had struck years before, when a dance hall explosion and fire killed 42 people, including Alma’s promiscuous sister, Ruby. What happened that night is the locus around which the story circles, bringing in the present-day realities of a town divided between those who have moved on and those who can’t, as the reader is gradually let into the larger tale surrounding the night Ruby died. Interspersed are short chapters recounting the stories of other townspeople who were drawn to the dancehall by personal whims and circumstances. Alma’s hold on sanity is tenuous, but as the reader learns about the generations of hardscrabble life in this little town, it is easy to see how and why it destroys people as surely as the fire had.
Those looking for a more traditionally plotted mystery may be disappointed, but suspense isn’t really the point here. As the title suggests, what happened that night will be revealed as Alma finally manages to tell Alek what she knows. In Woodrell’s work, reminiscent at once of Faulkner and Wilder, the plot is less the point than the gorgeous and skilled writing.
164 (US), 176 (UK)