The power of memory and its hold on people is at the heart of this new formidable novel by American Daniel Woodrell, whose last book, Winter's Bone, became an acclaimed film a few years ago.
Woodrell writes what he calls "country, or Ozark noir," novels set in the Missouri Ozarks, a region which, if it comes to mind, most associate with the image of uneducated, Bible-soaked rednecks. Woodrell sets you straight.
He presents closed communities of complicated, strong, knowing people in difficult situations. Clearly, this isn't an easy place to live, riddled with poverty, but with the rich, as always, in control.
The "noir"' reminds one of Woodrell's favourite authors, Flannery O'Connor, in that his books often present a mystery to be explained, its final unravelling bringing an uneasy peace.
In The Maid's Version, a framing narrative leads to a kind of memoir. The book begins in the '60s in West Table, Mo., with the maid of the title, Alma DeGeer Dunahew, about to die. She is determined to have her story told of West Table's "great fire of 1929," which destroyed the town dance hall, and killed, among others, her sister, Ruby.
This fire has set its stamp on the town's history ever since. She passes the story on to her fascinated grandson, Alek, who relates the story about the fateful year of the blaze.
The main story is of Alma, maid to the richest family in town, the Glencrosses, and Ruby. Alma is as solid, discreet and roughly loving as Ruby is careless and self-centred. Ruby begins an affair with the Glencross family's ambitious and intelligent head, Arthur.
Though the affair privately doesn't bother Arthur's distant wife, public morality must be served. The complication reaches a crisis when Alma's unreliable husband is killed in an accident in which he was driving Ruby and Arthur to an assignation.
Glencross insists on leaving the body, which leads Ruby -- showing some moral grit -- to leave Arthur, realizing, as she says, you can't love a man like that.
Later, Arthur has his own epiphany when he is stabbed and wounded by Alma's oldest son, James, understanding, that James was showing one could murder for love and how bound together he and Ruby's family were.
Weaving through this powerfully rendered tale are other characters, some of whom might be suspects in the fire, including the big-city gangsters who kill a reluctant local bad guy, the powerless gypsies, and the crusading sin-obsessed local pastor, as well as some who die in the fire.
Few novelists are as direct and visceral as Woodrell in relating the deep sense of a small community, which though divided by class, remains glued together.
The mystery's solution isn't a surprise, but a culmination of the idea that love, when it takes hold, might lead to anything, even unwanted tragedy. The maid's version is, finally, her act of love to her often-disdained sister.
Woodrell is relentless in his narrative. He bowls you over, and here is where a small problem arises. Woodrell has language at his command, but often it just overflows and we feel something is missing when we need it most.
For example, Alma: though the story ultimately rests with her, she isn't the most interesting of characters. We sense she should be, the reader wants that, but something is missing.
The Maid's Version is short at 164 pages, but it could be longer, and still, given Woodrell's abilities, seem short, and perhaps even richer. Time is on this writer's side, he should take it.
Rory Runnells is the artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.