The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

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The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A portrait of what made 1920s small town America tick and suffer in an exceptionally told story by someone that Roddy Doyle rates as one of the world's greatest novelist. Not to be missed!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Sceptre
ISBN: 978-1444732832

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Life may be tough in the Missouri town where Alma lives and grew up but at least she has a job. She learns and experiences a lot as maid to the wealthy Glencross family, but many of the experiences aren't the sort she'd like to relive. To top it all off, in 1929 the Arbor, a local dance club, explodes into flames killing 42 people including Alma's younger sister Ruby. The cause remains a mystery as factions are blamed or viewed suspiciously. However Alma knows the truth, a truth that remains untold until decades later during a visit from her grandson.

When someone as talented as Roddy Doyle cites an author as one of the world's best novelists we'd be daft to overlook them. Daniel Woodrell has earned such a soubriquet and, although this is the only one of his nine novels I've read, I'm definitely not going to argue. In fact there must be something in the water in Missouri as Daniel's a member of the same Iowa writing group that encourages other writing talent like Philip Roth and Alexander Maksik.

Daniel's native Missouri is a recurring setting in his novels, two of which (Winter's Bone and Woe to Live On became movies. Woe to Live On was renamed Ride with the Devil by director Ang Lee.) I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes his third as, although generally avoiding autobiographical writing, The Maid's Version is inspired by a real event.

In 1928 a dance club in White Plains, Missouri burnt down, killing 37 people. As in this novel, there were conflicting opinions as to its cause but every version pointed towards arson. From there it's just a skip away to a heavily fictionalised White Plains-type disaster happening here at the Arbor Club and Daniel's grandmother becoming the inspiration for Alma. However, though his writing Daniel has provided more depth and texture than any newspaper article would be capable of in a novel that's understandably poignant and touching while also packing some smiles and a few surprise laughs.

His writing style is a literary version of Dr Who's Tardis, managing to be simultaneously brief and detailed while putting a universe of meaning into each sentence. When we're told that someone is taken away because they're bizarre beyond the point of civic tolerance we understand perfectly. When Alma's drunken husband is likened to a watchdog that could speak English when sober, we see and hear him. In this manner we're treated to the back stories of those who were victims of the tragedy, gently stitched between episodes from Alma's life as well as vignettes featuring those who gave Alma's town its personality.

The fire lurks in the background but Alma is silent on the matter so we listen to the others. For instance we learn why Lawrence Megs has never been the same after Detroit: a whole life embedded in only two pages. There's also the darkly humorous interlude concerning two lawmen and a dead preacher which made me laugh out loud before I realised the sad indictment on local justice.

The episodes jump back and forth in time in no apparent order while making total sense. Then at the end the source of the fire is revealed and all we've gleaned suddenly makes even more sense.

This is not only a novel for those of us who enjoy a good book, but also for those of us who love to be hugged by language. Speaking personally, after finishing it for one of what I know will be the first of many times, I just wanted to hug it right back.

If you've enjoyed this, why not see what else Iowa has to offer with the highly recommended A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik and Indignation by Philip Roth. Or, if you'd rather see why Roddy Doyle is such an authority, try the contemporary classic Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

Buy The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg The Maid's Version by Daniel Woodrell is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books of 2013.

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