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Powerful, understated, hypnotizing
on July 24, 2012
A mesmerizing book by the author of "In The Cut." Like "In The Cut," "The Big Girls" uses spare, unembellished language to describe intensely emotional events. The novel begins with a description of the prison; it is almost completely adjective free, and the effect is strong and sad. Once I started reading this story, I couldn't look away. The book's three main female characters are as different as can be, yet they all have the same issues (a funadamental maladjustment to reality) and clearly belong in the same book.
I've read the book 4 times now, trying to decode its magic. After the third reading, I noticed that the title, "The Big Girls," is a reference to a prison guard, Captain Bradshaw, who calls the inmates "the big girls." Bradshaw is depicted as an ethical and humane man. We learn that his estranged wife shot him in the shoulder with his own sidearm; she said he mistook him for an intruder. The very last sentence of the novel refers to whether his wife "will let him say goodbye to his little girl." It's the first time we've heard mention of the little girl.
Given the novel's subject (sexual abuse of children and its consequences), Bradshaw's backstory suddenly seems filled with dark potential. All the "big girls" in the novel are survivors of some sort of adult predation (including Louise, the high-functioning, educated, idealistic psychiastrist, who was 14 or 15 when first seduced by an adult). Suddenly Bradshaw, one of the most likeable characters, seems implicated as well.
The novel is incredibly sad, and dark, yet it draws you in to a tightly drawn, claustrophobic little world. In that way, it has the appeal of some children's books, like "The Lion, The Witch,and The Wardrobe," or "The River at Green Knowe," or some of Joan Aiken's novels or other children's books about alternate, enchanted worlds ("His Dark Materials," "Harry Potter"). It feels as though the characters in "The Big Girls" are living under glass, in a quietly intense, enchanted, dark little world. The novel is troubling in that it casts a spell over the reader, too, and while you may find you want to look away from some of the more horrible events, you cannot; you have been contaminated by the fascination of the story and are no longer free.