Queen of the Underworld
Gail Godwin’s previous eleven novels, published over a period of thirty-four years, typically explore the ties of romance, marriage, family, and friendships in America. The New Yorker has encapsulated her career as “a three-time National Book Award nominee, best known for her sharp women characters and southern sensibility.”
Godwin’s twelfth novel, Queen of the Underworld, is both a departure and a homecoming. Set in a distinctive historical period, the 1959 Cuban cultural purge following Fidel Castro’s overthrow of the government, the story traces part of an eventful summer in the life of cub reporter Emma Ganta largely autobiographical character whose experiences tend to mirror Godwin’s own first newspaper job. Readers who are interested in tracing the parallels need look no further than the author’s newest book of nonfiction, published almost simultaneously with the novelThe Making of a Writer: Journals, 1961-1963 (2006), the first volume of Godwin’s projected two-volume memoir.
Emma, despite a troubled family life and an abusive stepfather, is an academic standout who personifies the descriptions “plucky,” “feisty,” “headstrong,” and “go-getter.” Not content simply to learn the ropes at her entry-level reporting jobmuch of which involves transcribing obituaries via telephone from the city’s funeral homes (or “fun homes,” as a supervisors abbreviates them in his daily memos to her)Emma feels during her first week on the job that the clock is already ticking on what is sure to be her stratospheric rise to the top of the profession.
Studying previous clippings of the newspaper’s star journalists, Emma feels not so much admiration for her elders as outright envy:My jealousy animal reared up dangerously on its hind legs when I laid my hands on Norbright’s corpus: six stuffed envelopes in as many years. If I was still here in six years, how many would I have? I would be twenty-eight. Would I have a novel published by then? Would I have won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting? Oh God, so much to get done . . .
Emma is even more self-absorbed than the average twenty-something, and there is a cynically calculating side even to her naïveté. At one point, she describes her first impression of assistant managing editor Lou Norbright, who will become her uneasy combination of teacher and nemesis, in this way: “I couldn’t place him in any of my male categories; he seemed neither gent, mentor, obstacle, adversary, sexual attractant, useful stepping-stone, buddy-cohort, or anything potentially personal.”
In short, Emma Gant would at times be in danger of becoming insufferable to the reader were she not repeatedly redeeming herself by her almost childlike joie de vivre and her openness in befriending, through her rudimentary Spanish, the uprooted Cuban émigrés who increasingly fill the city’s hotels and rooming houses, their futures in perpetual suspense. Also greatly appealing is Emma’s gift (which is Godwin’s gift) for describing the vivid and churning tapestry of architectures and cultures that surrounds her, as in this scene at a hotel pool party:A sudden tropical breeze animated the colored lights strung around the pool and sent the red-and-white Cuban flag into a patriotic flutter above the flower beds. Spanish and English phrases tumbled together in the dark tropical air and wafted across the pool to us, amplified by the water . . . By this time, my Cuba libre had kicked in. I had ceased straining over translations and just let the words wash over me, making perfect sense in a larger way. Darting busily about was Lidia in her red flamenco dress, pouncing on her guests, arranging and rearranging them in designs of her own making, like a creative artist whose material just happened to be other people.
By mid-novel, Emma’s extracurricular activities are beginning to eclipse even her intense days on news assignments around the city. Between rendezvous with her married lover Paul (a Jewish hotelier twenty years her senior), going out on mysterious nighttime missions to haul crates of “dental equipment” from the airport, and meeting for...
(The entire section is 1712 words.)