Book review: The Maid's Version, By Daniel Woodrell

Gothic fiction meets the folkloric in this tender women's tale

Daniel Woodrell's first novel since his celebrated Winter's Bone blends the folkloric with Southern gothic, historical recapitulation with fictional investigative journalism, all suffused in his matchless tenderness of telling. The many-angled perspective of The Maid's Version keeps homing to womenfolk, who, in a brutal and stinted Ozark small-town world, maintain their integrity through the decades, weird and crazy though they may appear, by refusing to enlist amongst "the surrendered".

"Rapunzel, let down your hair!" The narrator's grandmother, Alma DeGeer Dunahew, the maid of the title, vowed never to cut her hair when her beloved sister was murdered – and she never does. Her hair drags the floor and has to be coiled round her arm when she walks. Alma hoards the truth about the mass murder that killed good-time girl, Ruby. Her witchy, "hallowed" hair is her testament, a lifeline sustained by grief and grievance. She lets it down to her grandson, the narrator.

In 1929, 42 dancers died in an explosion at the Arbor Dance Hall, "murdered midstep". Who caused the explosion and why? The narrative quest of The Maid's Version is pursued by zigzag routes. Woodrell is concerned with pauperdom, inveterate dynastic feud, with the sorrows and endurance of labouring women.

The lovable character of Ree Dolly, fending for her brothers in a world of cold paucity, centred Winter's Bone. The Maid's Version, like the explosion it investigates, is the story of a 20th-century community, told in snatches and scraps, a medley of skewed report, grounded in bizarre hearsay, false testimony, town legend and blind witness.

I know nothing of Ozark dialect save what Woodrell has taught me – and yet I have the sense of having heard its authentic tropes and rhythms. In The Maid's Version, the oral and the poetic tangle and splice. Alma and Ruby are illiterate: the grandson's narration raises their tongue to occasional elegiac beauty. Woodrell's characteristic devices - zeugma, paradox, ellipsis, alliteration - are far more than decorative. He captures the inaudible maids' talk on a bench where they would sit "telling the truth in whispers".

Whodunnit? The answer is low-key and perhaps less crucial than the outlandish "winged loneliness" of the voices the narrator echoes.

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