The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce. Valerie Martin. London: Doubleday, 2004. 351pp. 1st published 1994

Humanity is divorced from the animal kingdom, women are divorced from men and from their own inner, animal rage.

The novel swaps between three loosely connected stories of women in New Orleans. Camille is a young employee caring for big cats the city zoo, watching as her favourite beast crashes painfully but repeatedly against her cage. Camille also does some sex work on the side. More or less friendless, she struggles for self-esteem under routine psychological blows from her alcoholic mother and from a string of desensitised males. Her openness, her longing for love and respect, expose her, of course, to many casual whallops from life, and she will surely bring out any rescue impulses in the reader. At the same time Camille has momentary but compulsive fantasies of being a wildcat. Anything could happen.

Her sensitivity is surprising, since almost everyone around her is blunted. Perhaps it’s the result of a childhood spent watching out for the moods of an aggressive parent.

Someone who could potentially help and guide her is the second main character, Ellen, a vet at the zoo, and the mother of a 14 year old girl. But Ellen is sinking into depression as one of her smug husband’s affairs gets serious, and, yes, a divorce looms. The smug husband is an historian researching the sensational murder of a C19th southern German slaveowner, whose throat had been torn open. Convicted for the crime was his young wife, Elisabeth, fresh from the French quarter. Elisabeth is also the novel’s third main protagonist as it slips back now and then to her era. Elisabeth and her slaveowner husband had each entered wedlock expecting to subdue their spouse without undue trouble, but when his brutishness emerges so does the hideous inequality of their social positions – with the realities of slavery vivid in the background. Elisabeth defies him by finding her own inner ferocity and through recourse to Mambo witchery.

I found this an uneven novel. The interesting Camille rescues it to some extent, but Ellen and especially her husband are wooden, stock-in-trade characters of feminist fiction, and the southern history section is also rather just-so. It was disappointing, after the freshness of some of Valerie Martin’s other novels.

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