Toronto
2 min

Shocking grace

There is a decidedly seasoned quality to Marnie Woodrow’s Spelling Mississippi that a lot of first novels lack.



There is little in either of her first two collections of stories, Why We Close Our Eyes When We Kiss (1991) and In The Spice House (1996), to prepare one for this work. Woodrow (a former Xtra columnist) has executed the shift to the long form with shocking grace and considerable skill.



Spelling Mississippi (which goes on sale Tue, Mar 12) is a big novel both in terms of size and ambition. One main character, Cleo Savoy, is a young woman on holiday in New Orleans. Cleo has escaped from Toronto where she has worked in the small, not terribly successful hotel owned by her father and stepmother. Early in her visit, in the novel’s opening scene, she encounters Madeleine Shockfire, who is launching an escape of her own by diving into the Mississippi River.



This dramatic coincidence organizes the whole novel.



It’s a classic fictional device which Woodrow uses to great advantage. She tells the stories of the two women in a carefully structured way, providing enough detail from each of their pasts as way of explicating what happens in the present time of the novel.



The shifts to episodes from the past and the shifts from character to character give the story an interesting depth as well as momentum. They illustrate how personal history is actually the synthesis of the real and the embellished, if not the entirely imaginary.



We learn a great deal about Cleo as she becomes obsessed with finding Madeleine, who she has mistaken for a suicide. And we find out what has driven Madeleine to swim, not for the first time, across the river.



For all the apparent drama, the novel is extremely subtle. This could be because Woodrow doesn’t let the whole thing slide to the melodramatic, nor does she opt for lazy sentimentality. Instead, the book is about the complexity of relationships within the context of family and romance.



The novel has a distinctly leisurely pace, which could certainly be attributed to the New Orleans setting. Life in the south – especially in the city that seems not to sleep and certainly seems to never stop drinking – is decidedly slower. There’s a scene in a corner store where the Canadian Cleo grows impatient waiting in line while a typically southern exchange of extended pleasantries (actually they are more like unpleasantries about ill health and family problems) takes place. It’s a comic reminder that life has a different rhythm in the south. There’s a similar tension for the reader of the novel in that at times it feels as though Cleo is never going to resolve the mystery of the nocturnal swimmer.



If the first three quarters of the book take their sweet southern time to unfold, the last quarter takes place in a different time zone. This shift might be my only real complaint about the novel. Suddenly, things start happening and regardless of the inevitability of what does happen – we are more than prepared for the intensity of the relationship between Cleo and Madeleine – the compression of events in the final sections is almost overwhelming. It’s an effective solution to the tension that has been skillfully established. But it feels rushed and somewhat unsatisfying.



That’s a minor quarrel. On the whole, Spelling Mississippi has a great deal to offer. It is full of intelligence, humour and passion. Cue up a Nina Simone CD, pour yourself a shot of brandy and Benedictine and give in to this book.



SPELLING MISSISSIPPI.

By Marnie Woodrow.

Knopf Canada.

390 pages. $32.95.