The Magazine

Miami Rhapsody

A journalist misses the stories around her.

Jan 23, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 18 • By ANN STAPLETON
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Queen of the Underworld

by Gail Godwin

Random House, 352 pp., $24.95

GAIL GODWIN'S NEW NOVEL makes exiles of everyone, including the reader. The year is 1959, and the callow yet calculating Emma Gant arrives in Miami to begin her life as a cub reporter. Her residential hotel, the Julia Tuttle (named for Miami's founder), is heavily populated with the first exiles from Cuba, all harboring hopes that Castro will prove to be a flash in the pan and they will soon be able to return home to resume their former lives.

Hector Rodriguez, dental surgeon by day, arms smuggler for the counterrevolution by night, speaks for all of them, as we listen ruefully from our little perch on the new millennium:

This new "ley agraria" of Fidel's, his "land reform," is nothing but an excuse to take what he wants. But do you know what keeps me hopeful, señorita? My respect for history. Yes, I am a great fan of la historia, especially the history of my country, and what gives me the hope are two things. One--he held up a finger--no Cuban ruler has ever held power for as much as ten consecutive years. And two--up went the second finger--is for certain the Americans will never allow a Communist regime to come so close to their shores.

And yet these vibrantly drawn never-say-dies, with their medianoches (fried pork and cheese sandwiches) and their fried green bananas, who dance the cha-cha-cha at poolside even as they plot the downfall of the great usurper Fidel, are repeatedly marginalized. Each time we try to get a good look at one of them--Enrique Ocampo, his sugar plantation appropriated by Castro, his entire body contorted into a strange, new posture of hesitancy and unaccustomed deference as he struggles with an unfamiliar language and a new life as a desk clerk--the insubstantial Emma steps into the picture and obscures our view.

Thus the odd and disconcerting mismatch between the relatively lightweight, popular-novel treatment of Emma's coming-of-age story (new job, married lover, nail polish) and the gravity of the underlying themes: exile, in its various forms; usurpation--of individual lives, of an entire country; the importance of finding and protecting one's authentic self (we must somehow manage to be what we are, in order to be truly known and loved); and the transmigration of souls (the ability to enter into another consciousness) we experience by way of empathy.

This disparity is unfortunate, since Godwin, when she makes an end run around Emma, can be remarkably insightful, expressing all the anguish of a displaced people in the poignancy of one small detail, as in Mrs. Ocampo's comments regarding two dolls belonging to her solemn nine-year-old daughter Luisa, who dreams of going home again: "Tilda has the headaches and Manuela, she has las pesadillas, the bad dreams. The dolls suffer for our whole family, thanks to our wise Luisita here." Thus the violence done to a culture by a broad scale usurpation such as Castro's reaches even into the sleep of the children's toys.

In the title, Godwin invokes the Greek goddess Persephone. While picking flowers on the plain of Enna, she was suddenly kidnapped, sucked down through a cleft in the earth, by Hades, king of the underworld, her mother Demeter's loneliness for her making a bitter wintertime of the world above. In the novel, the title of Queen of the Underworld unofficially accrues to Emma, empress of her own little realm of newspaper types and insurrectionist Cubans, awaiting her own imminent "abduction," but specifically refers to Ginevra Snow, Emma's counterpart or "sister adventurer," a former madam with whose story (another figurative kidnapping) Emma becomes obsessed.

Ginevra, "in a somnolent contralto," declaims Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" while lying on a gurney in a hospital emergency room, and does little else of interest, her connection with Emma fizzling to an ongoing correspondence on such mundane topics as the queen's decision to finish high school. It is telling that the people who supposedly mean most to Emma, including her lover, spend the greater part of the novel away from her, as if crowded out by her overwhelming self-concern--a trait that has the effect of trivializing, rather than reinforcing, the book's themes.