SUSANNA MOORE writes the way Frida Kahlo painted. Bits of bone; quite a lot of blood; beating hearts; serious, beautiful women (often in white dresses); and in the margins of her extremely visual novels: gorgeous flowers and dark horsemen in black capes.
Moore began her writing career in the 1980s with three books based on her childhood in Hawaii. These were gentle novels full of luscious, sensuous memories. Not far beneath the surface, though, swam the author's secret and puzzling memories of life with a flamboyant, fascinating and severely disturbed mother. Reminiscent of the work of Elspeth Huxley or Susan Minot, the early work of Jayne Anne Phillips and the later work of Alexandra Fuller, these were required reading for a generation of women having a little trouble taking the world by storm and badly in need of less-than-perfect models for motherhood. The course might have been called "The Downsides of Privilege," "How to Survive Your Crazy Mother," "How to See What's Beautiful When Things Seem Desperate" or "How to Be a Good Girl Even When You Don't Want to Be One."
Two brief years passed between the last of the trilogy ("Sleeping Beauties") and "In the Cut" (1995), the story of an English professor in New York whose passions lead her into a world of violence that eventually engulfs her. "In the Cut" put Moore on the map as the most unflinching, graphically sexual, violent, literary female fiction writer alive. If writing were a form of therapy and critics were therapists, one might say that Moore rose from her mother's grave sexually reborn and fully in touch with her own rage. Critics loved and feared the book. The movie, directed by Jane Campion and starring Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo, was easier to dismiss.
Eight years later came "One Last Look," the narrative of Lady Eleanor Oliphant, who sails to India in 1836 to run the household of her brother, the governor general. Some readers were relieved by its relative gentleness; others had been hoping for a sequel to "In the Cut." Like a brave young quarterback, Moore turned, faced her audience and with her next book ran straight down the middle with a history/memoir of the colonization of Hawaii and her own haole (white) community. "I wanted," she explains in an interview, "to get as far away from the world of 'In the Cut' as possible."
Moore's new book, "The Big Girls" (Alfred A. Knopf: 230 pp., $24), is a novel in four voices: Dr. Louise Forrest, a psychiatrist at a women's prison in upstate New York and recently divorced with an 8-year-old son named Ransom; her patient, Helen, an inmate at the prison who is serving a life sentence for killing her two young children; Angie, an actress living in L.A.; and Ike Bradshaw, a recently divorced corrections officer at the prison.
Moore has a beautiful way of not gripping her characters too tightly, despite the fact that her novels are carefully constructed. In "The Big Girls," this quality manifests itself in the way she weaves the voices without clunky authorial intervention. There is a noticeable absence of physical description. This is a novel about why people do things, the fears and motivations and desires that crowd, pervert and reroute the best-laid plotlines of our lives. It is also a book about judgment and morality and how very careful we must be with those weapons of mass destruction.
"I had written about what it was like to have a mother," Moore says by phone from her apartment in Manhattan, "and I wanted to write about what it was like to be a mother. My daughter, who is in her late 20s, was appalled that I chose to write about a mother who kills her children!"
Moore can be ferocious on the page, but her voice has an extremely cultured, sometimes beseeching quality. "Did you like Helen?" she asks me. When I say yes, she is audibly relieved. "I'm so glad. Because I love her."
The author has taught writing for years in women's prisons. She did extensive research on women who kill their children before writing "The Big Girls." It is a crime that elicits strong reactions. "I began to individuate, the more I read. Susan Smith, for example, is not that easy to like. Andrea Yates is easier. If I've done my job, the reader will understand what drove Helen to kill her own children." Moore wants her readers to empathize and understand the desperate circumstances that led to Helen's actions, including the constant, terrifying sexual abuse she experienced from her stepfather as a child. Voices crowded into her head: Ellie, her imaginary friend; and the dark horsemen, the Messengers who told her to save her own children by killing them.
Moore's gentle way of shifting among voices has a way of spreading Helen's delusions among all four main characters and the second string of friends, colleagues and inmates and then outward to the reader. Her fears reverberate in our consciousness, making it all the more difficult to judge and dismiss Helen as evil. "Several drafts ago a friend read it," Moore (who tends to write five or six drafts of each book) says, not without chagrin, "and she thought it was all one person."
A recent review in Publisher's Weekly praised "The Big Girls" as an indictment against the current state of our prisons. The impression one gets is of a failed system in which drugs and severe punishment are used instead of more permanent and humane forms of therapy. One also gets the impression that it is a bureaucracy particularly inadequate for the treatment of women. As hard as Dr. Forrest tries, she is constantly fighting an institution and a culture devoid of affection and kindness. (Moore, it must be said, was summarily thrown out of a Brooklyn detention center, where she had been teaching for months, for bringing in "contraband": paper, pencils and books.)
MOORE is often frustrated by readers' insistence on making autobiographical connections, perhaps as a result of her earlier novels. "I am not Dr. Forrest," she insists, admitting that it was actually easier to imagine Helen. "The public likes to believe that what it is reading is true. There is a lot of extreme identification with characters in novels." Moore finds this "insulting," as if she didn't have enough imagination to create a character different from herself. After "In the Cut" was published, Moore noticed that male friends treated her with "an altered intimacy and camaraderie," as if she had become one of them. In France, rumors circulated that Susanna Moore was a pseudonym, that the book had been written by a man.
Moore is currently writing a novel about a German couple living in Berlin at the end of World War II. (She started to work on a story loosely based on the life of Diana Mitford Mosley, one of the famed Mitford sisters and the wife of British fascist Oswald Mosley, but found she "loathed" her, and changed her mind.)
It takes a certain fearlessness to tackle the subjects Moore has written about, to put a finger in the wounds of human nature and probe, hard, with full consciousness and incisive intellect (not hiding behind plot or dialogue). Like Louise Forrest (whose therapist in the novel expresses great relief that her patient's mother loved her — if she hadn't, would Forrest have instead chosen a safe, Park Avenue practice?), the author felt some safety as a child, despite the craziness, because her mother loved her. "Growing up as an island girl, the last generation of a colonial society," she says, "we girls also had a physical confidence. There was not too much that boys could do that girls couldn't. Hence, in 'In the Cut,' a female character who refuses to be afraid."
But, Moore says, referring to her mother's increasing emotional instability: "I did spend a lot of time trying to be a good girl. I must have blamed myself for what was happening. I wasn't protecting my mother enough. Maybe that is why I volunteer and try to do good works." Perhaps the desire to be a good girl also explains why the writer tries so hard to find the good in the darkest, most desperate characters. If you can love Helen, a therapist might say, certainly you can love your own mother. From there, he might say, it's a hop, skip and jump to loving yourself. *