Missy, By Chris Hannan

Wild West prostitute pushes the boundaries of despair and hope
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Perhaps it's unsurprising that an award-winning playwright should have excelled in the creation of a character's voice, or that so much of the success of this debut novel should depend on that voice. But from the gorgeously sassy opening ("I expect you have the consolation of religion, or the guidance of a philosophy, but when me and the girls get frazzled, or blue, or rapturous, or just awfully so-so, we shin out and buy ourselves some hats..."), it is surprising how winning, and how powerful, the voice of Dol McQueen, 19th-century American "flash-girl" (or prostitute) actually is.

We meet Dol as she and some other "girls" are heading out from Mrs Liberty's flash-house in San Francisco for a new life in Virginia City. Dol can run as far as she likes, but she's not going to escape herself. The daughter of a Scottish fantasist who somehow found herself on the other side of the Atlantic before dedicating her life to drink, Dol has not had the easiest of starts in life. Like her fellow flash-girl Ness, who wants to marry and go straight, she soon learns that there is no one "beginning" in life but several, and most of them are bogus.

While on the road to Virginia Dol meets her nemesis, Pontius, a pimp and drug-runner whom she saves from killing himself. Pontius is travelling with a load of opium, Dol's own drug of choice. She can't resist testing out the ways of relieving him of his burden, even if it does mean a severe beating at best, death at worst. Chris Hannan manages to combine the sheer exuberance of Dol's narrative voice with some of the worst aspects of human behaviour – violence, sexual exploitation, ruinous neglect of children – without either diminishing the despair one feels at the hardest of lives lived, or compromising the effects of such a life.

Dol herself is not so much an anti-heroine as part-heroine, part-realist. Hannan is writing a romance – set in the Wild West during the gold rush, when fortunes can be made from a single stroke of luck and lives transformed – and he needs a romantic heroine, a kind of American Becky Sharp. But Dol is also the product of a realist narrative that knows her energetic, optimistic, never-say-die voice is the most romantic thing about her. Hannan has traversed the limits of history and given us a thoroughly modern woman too.