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BOOK REVIEW: Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin


Emma Gant, fresh out of college, has set her feet firmly on her own path. Leaving behind an impossible family situation, she charts her course for Miami to take her place on the staff of the Miami Star and by the side of her married lover.

It is the summer of 1959, Cuba has been betrayed by Castro and floods of Cuban refugees are arriving in Miami. Emma is quickly enmeshed in the lives of those sharing her hotel. Her predetermined plans for her life quickly falter as different views on life make inroads into her consciousness. With her lively intelligence and curiosity, Emma is determined to keep control of her own situation.

In Queen of the Underworld, Gail Godwin helps the reader experience Emma’s search for her essential “Emma-ness”, set against a background of chaos, both historical and physical. The concept of “usurpation” is one on which Emma spends a great deal of time. All around her is a physical reminder of this, displaced Cubans now calling the hotel home. However, Godwin draws out this theme in Emma’s work, relationships and in the relationship with her married lover.

The use of language in this work also operates on several levels. Emma’s neophyte status in the world means that, despite her desire to be seen as a woman of the world, she is continually faced with concepts, history and words she does not know. Daily she is reminded that she can’t understand the spoken word around her in her new home and wonders how she would react if she not only had to face a new life but also one where she could not speak the language. Godwin has plotted her story in a way to show the similarities between Emma’s life and those of the Cubans around her, using this mirror to reflect to Emma how she is both the usurper and the usurped.

Emma is an engaging heroine drawn vividly to life by an author of great talent. The passion and questioning exhibited by Emma mesmerizes the reader, drawing you into a life beginning surrounded by utter change.

Read my review at Armchair Interviews – Queen of the Underworld.

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