Persephone takes Miami

Queen of the Underworld

Gail Godwin
Random House
336 pages, $34.96

In Greek mythology, Demeter’s daughter Persephone, blithely picking flowers one afternoon, is snatched and dragged to the underworld by Hades, who can no longer resist her loveliness. Grieving her loss, Demeter plunges the earth into barren winter. Hades allows Persesphone to return, but only temporarily, and in this way the seasons are explained.

Not all tellings of the myth mention Persephone’s sojourn in the underworld, but those that do recount her transformation from virginal maiden to powerful and unyielding regent, some even suggesting that her annual return to her mother’s side was reluctant. In these versions of the myth, Persephone is known as Queen of the Underworld.

Women who loose the bonds of traditional roles to inhabit positions of power are a constant in Gail Godwin novels, and the heroine of her twelfth novel is such a one. Set in sweltering 1959 Miami, a city seething with Castro’s exiles, Queen of the Underworld opens in the hours before Emma Gant boards the train that will allow her to leave her abusive stepfather and his itinerant lifestyle behind.

Spanning the ten days following her arrival in Miami, Queen of the Underworld is an account of Emma’s reinvented life told in first-person narrative, newspaper clippings, and journal entries. A fiercely ambitious young woman, Emma has orchestrated her new life to begin the day after she graduates journalism school. In a city that is both distant to her groping, violent stepfather and home to her lover, a married Jewish restaurateur twenty years her senior, Emma is a cub reporter at the Miami Star, determined to avoid the women’s pages ghetto and achieve front-page journalism.

Queen of the Underworld shows a delicious, unrestrained exuberance for the marrow of life. Character virtues and foibles appear in technicolour detail; plot turns are sensational. Tess, a dental assistant by day and clandestine activist by night, sports movie-star hair and sexy stockings. An august professor smuggles his cue-card memoirs out of Cuba in the lining of his bride’s wedding dress. A female revolutionary in search of a cause orchestrates the counter-revolution while pouring coffee at Emma’s hotel. A former southern-beauty-turned-madam, dubbed “Queen of the Underworld” seven years earlier by a reporter, turns up at a local hospital after her third overdose of sleeping medication.

Emma immediately identifies with the former madam. “In some strange way I felt she offered an alternative version of myself,” she says, and is irked that the Queen of the Underworld story broke seven years earlier, too early for her to uncover it herself. “To follow her story would be to glimpse what I might have done had I been trapped in Waycross in her circumstances.”

Gail Godwin has spent her career using the conventional social novel to pry open the oyster of female identity. Deeply invested in the Socratic maxim that an unexamined life isn’t worth living, Godwin is after the pearly light of actualization through introspection. The notion of keeping track of oneself is a constant thread in her work (it was an admonishment from irascible Magda to her husband in The Good Husband), and in this novel it reappears in a variety of ways. Her trope of the Miami perfumer, sister of Emma’s lover, who fashions individual scents that “give others the pleasure of knowing themselves better” is a lovely one. At this perfumer’s funeral, the rabbi seems to elucidate Godwin’s purpose: “The more we can define ourselves, the clearer it becomes to us where our essential powers lie and how we can best put them to use during the short span allotted to us on this earth.”

Queen of the Underworld is a hopeful, though less nuanced novel than The Good Husband. What might have been holds sway to the point that Godwin’s late-fifties Miami seems revisionist. Emma forges ahead in the male-dominated newspaper world with aplomb, untroubled by glass ceilings, sexual advances, or threats to her safety. Men and women alike find her appealing and worthy of (largely non-sexual) attention, many tucking her under their wings; even the wife of her lover, oblivious to her husband’s infidelity, considers her a protégé. 1959 Miami is a safe haven for the young female reporter, who leads a charmed life in a hotel named after the female founder of Miami and never cooks her own meals.

It’s here that the novel disappoints. In a novel bound to transformative mythology by its very title, we ought to witness greater transformation, or at least the struggle to achieve it. Emma’s metamorphosis must have occurred before the story opens, because her transition from beleaguered daughter to confident, independent woman is silken. It is important to recognize, of course, that Godwin’s most hopeful creative decision might have been to limit the story to the ten days following her arrival in Miami. During that honeymoon period, Emma encounters little to push back against. She does not encounter her evil stepfather again, and though her transfer from the newspaper’s Miami office to the Lauderdale bureau is unwelcome, she is undeterred, writing this in her journal: “As long as I had this urge to keep track of myself and put my exile in perspective, I would not be vanquished.” And in the pages of this novel, she isn’t. A sovereign Persephone, Emma Gant is mistress of all she surveys.