Stories multiply without our consent, without our knowledge. Susanna
Moore's 'The Big Girls' is never a single, simple story, though each
component slots easily into place. But as the story unfolds, it splits,
swirls, creating narratives in the reader's mind without the reader's
permission and seemingly without any effort on the part of the writer.
In the same way that the mind organizes what the eye sees into a
cognizable image, the reading experience organizes 'The Big Girls'
into a story. Moore has the skill to let the reader do the reading,
to let the reading become part of the act of writing, of telling
the story. We're invested in the novel because it allows our participation.
Our perception of the story brings the story to life.
'The Big Girls' is told from four perspectives; that of Dr. Louise Forrest,
the head of psychiatry at Sloatsburg women's prison, Helen, an inmate,
incarcerated for killing her children, Angie, a sketchy would-be starlet,
and Ike Bradshaw, a corrections officer at Sloatsburg. As the novel begins,
Dr. Forrest marks her sixth month at Sloatsburg, and continues her treatment
of Helen. At first, we switch between mainly between Helen's Dr. Forrest's
story. But as Angie and Ike begin to speak to us, we realize that the
relationships here are a lot more complicated than we ever could expect.
The story is deeper, darker, and more insidious than we can imagine.
But then, Moore leaves little to the imagination.
Though the tale is told in four separate voices, there's never any confusion
as to who is speaking. Moore's characterizations are wrought with an
almost effortless, unaffected prose style. Each segment is short, and
the cues as to who is speaking are subtle but never overly obvious. It
quickly becomes apparent that Helen is quite mentally ill – she
is, after all, in a psychiatric prison – but Moore only gradually
reveals the extent and the reasons behind Helen's illness. It also quickly
becomes apparent that Dr. Forrest has her own troubled history, with
an ex-husband, Rafael, and a boy named Ransom. Angie's voice comes as
a breath of fresh air, at first almost comic relief. But there's little
comedy in this novel that uncovers one dark deed after another and keeps
plunging deeper into the morass of human cruelty.
The darkness in 'The Big Girls' could scare off a lot of readers with
good reason. Moore is unflinching in her willingness to shine a light
on the grimmest and most horrific human behaviors. She explores the depravity
not just through the lives of the characters, but uses the prison setting
effectively to tell one horror story after another. And just when you
think you've escaped from the actual prison, you'll find the prisons
within the minds of the characters to be just as fertile ground for dark
deeds. Moore does not revel in discomfort, but she's willing to present
the most unpleasant thoughts and experiences with a dispassionate eye,
using her storytelling technique with almost unbearable accuracy.
What keeps 'The Big Girls' from becoming a wallow through the swamp of
human awfulness is Moore's ability to engage the reader in the storytelling
experience, to make the reader complicit in imagining the worst that
can happen before it manages to happen. There's a savage joy in the fierce
power of storytelling at work here. Moore knows how we create narratives,
how we wring meaning from the random acts of violence and horror that
infuse our lives. Her narrative power is a joy in itself. It is a beautiful
painting of unimaginable horror. We open our eyes. We bring it to life.