Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Queen of the Underworld

Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin

Bright-eyed, independent Emma Gant arrives in Miami in the summer of 1959 with the world at her feet. She has a married lover who'll show her the ropes, and a reasonably-priced residence orchestrated by a family friend, and an upwardly-mobile job at the Miami Star, the most important accessory for a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill journalism school.

Emma joins the Star's reporting staff at a tumultuous time, shortly after Fidel Castro enacted his First Agrarian Reform. Living in a hotel run by Cuban émigrés for Cuban émigrés makes the upheavals of Castro’s revolución more than just news to Emma. Placing her in this context, the author seems to be drawing a comparison between Emma’s situation and that of the Cubans. As Emma is struggling to figure out her place in the world and gauge her future success, so are her newly exiled neighbors.

The more one reads into the life history of the author, the more Queen of the Underworld begins to seem like a semi-autobiographical novel. Godwin herself graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1959 and spent a year on the staff of the Miami Herald before embarking on the world travels that sparked her literary career.

What is most curious about the novel is that it takes place over such a short period of time. The story of Emma's coming into her own, Queen of the Underworld is a window into what seems to be a key moment in Emma’s development, one that may affect her entire career. Godwin, however, manages to squeeze an unbelievable amount of action into less than two weeks. Emma's life during the span of the novel is so full, it is almost surreal; as she herself recounts, “in one week and three days, I met a gangster walking a dog, sat behind a notorious boss at a funeral, became friends with [an] ex-madame […], and helped two Cubans smuggle arms out of Florida” (331), and that’s not even the half of it.

By contrast, the novel’s ending is unsatisfying and somewhat abrupt. While Emma fantasizes about writing a novel, there is nothing (besides Godwin's own history) that gives any indication that Emma will become a novelist. The narrative ends with both Emma and the reader waiting on her future, filled with unanswered questions.

Godwin’s characterization, however, is the novel’s saving grace. Emma is amazingly sympathetic despite her naïveté and the fact that she seems to have no compunction about sleeping with another woman's husband (although her sexual relationships do seem to be at odds with her history of sexual abuse). More significantly, Queen of the Underworld is full of finely drawn secondary characters. One such character is Don Waldo Navarro, a prominent academic who fled Cuba with his memoirs sewn into his wife’s skirt. A minor character, who could have easily been shunted aside after his grand entrance, Don Waldo is made real in Godwin’s attention to detail: he swims breaststroke in the hotel pool “in billowing maroon trunks” (260) with “his leonine head erect” (259) and has the ability of seamlessly incorporating a nine-year-old Spanish-speaking girl into a English-language conversation: “the great educator’s consecutive translations into Spanish on Luisa’s behalf bore no trace of pedagogy. Don Waldo made it seem merely as though he suddenly chose to complete the rest of his discourse in another tongue” (272).

Read my full review at Front Street Reviews...


  1. I read this last year and really enjoyed it. I find it interesting to see what other people pick up in the same book.

    I totally glossed over the fact about everything happening in two weeks, being caught up more in the action and Godwin's use of language. Great review!

  2. Actually I found this one really hard to review (there seemed to be both too much and too little to "talk" about). I mucked around with this review so much that I'm glad it turned out well in the end.
    The book is definitely compelling, but I really just wanted more out of the ending.

  3. Okay, this has nothing to do with the book, but I tagged you again for a meme. Have fun with it, wouldja???