what is it about first fiction in Canada? Count Marnie Woodrow's Spelling Mississippi in with a raft of recent debuts -- Heave and Cumberland, to name just two -- that don't read like first novels.Woodrow previously showed promise with her short stories, especially those in the In The Spice House collection. Here Woodrow's lush prose drives a satisfying and coherent narrative.
Cleo, on the run from Toronto, is sitting on a New Orleans wharf beside the Mississippi River when a woman leaps into the water fully clothed and wearing a tiara.
Cleo's first impulse in her role as witness is to run, and she succeeds in physically escaping the scene but can't quite manage a psychological get-away. Soon the Mississippi swimmer becomes a deep obsession.
Cleo retreats to her small hotel, where serendipity soon brings information about the river nymph. Her name is Madeline. Her husband works as a chef in a neighbourhood restaurant. And she has survived.
As she sets up their inevitable confrontation, Woodrow puts us inside the heads of these soul sisters. Both of them are frustrated artists with a thing about water and had nightmarish experiences with their mothers, all of which translates into white-hot personal anger that desperately needs to be released.
This is a love letter to New Orleans in all its steamy glory: the magnolias' reek, the non-stop nightlife, the potent Southern hospitality.
Woodrow keeps the sexy story pounding along toward Cleo's and Madeline's eventual connection, which is so intense they suspect that something must be terribly wrong.
Yet by the end, you can't help but conclude that, with Spelling Mississippi, Woodrow has done something terribly right.
She joins the New Face Of Fiction event Monday (May 6). See Readings, this page.
SPELLING MISSISSiPPI by Marnie Woodrow (Knopf), 388 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN