At the heart of this electrifying novel is a crime of unfathomable horror and its effect on several profoundly different lives, each altered by a surprising connection to the others.
We hear four brilliantly realized voices: Helen, an inmate at Sloatsburg women's prison serving a life sentence for the murder of her children; trapped within the maze of her own tortured mind, she is the subject of damning national attention. Dr. Louise Forrest, the recently divorced mother of an eight-year-old boy--the new chief of psychiatry at Sloatsburg. Angie, an ambitious Hollywood starlet, intent on nothing but fame. And Ike Bradshaw, a sardonic corrections officer, formerly a New York City narcotics detective.
As the alternating narratives unfold, we begin to wonder why Dr. Forrest has chosen Sloatsburg over the Park Avenue practice for which she was trained. And the origin of Helen's psychosis is revealed--both its shocking depths and its disturbingly convincing rationale--as well as why she is desperate to make herself known to the young actress Angie.
The Big Girls is a powerful and audacious novel about the anarchy of families, the sometimes destructive power of the maternal instinct, the vitality and evil of communities, and the cult of celebrity--written in spare, evocative prose and with a bold understanding of the darkest, most hidden aspects of human nature.
In spare yet hypnotic prose, Moore (One Last Look) examines the bond between a young psychiatrist and a mentally ill patient in her devastating sixth novel, set at an upstate New York federal women's prison. Sloatsburg Correctional Institution, a former sanitarium on the west bank of the Hudson, is dangerous, understaffed, underfinanced and overwhelmingly grim. The place epitomizes what's wrong with our nation's prison system and stands as a warning about our growing mental health crisis. Moore deftly shifts perspective among her principal characters--Dr. Louise Forrest, Sloatsburg's psychiatry chief; Helen Nash, a suicidal inmate who's been convicted of killing her children; Capt. Henry "Ike" Bradshaw, a corrections officer who's in love with Louise; and Angie Mills, a Hollywood actress (and Louise's ex-husband's girlfriend), whom Helen believes is her long-lost sister--as the action hurtles to an oddly satisfying resolution. Reading this heartbreaker is like watching a train wreck while dialing for help on your cellphone. You can't turn away. 75,000 printing; author tour. (May)
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April 30, 2007
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Excerpt from The Big Girls by Susanna Moore
Sloatsburg Correctional Institution, a walled complex of seven large stone buildings, sits on the west bank of the Hudson River. An hour north of Manhattan by train, it was built in the late nineteenth century as a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. Buildings A, B, and C hold five hundred prisoners of the federal government, all of them women. The remaining buildings are used for clinics, schoolrooms, the chapel, and administration as well as for the laundry, kitchens, library, and machine shop. There is a large plot of land behind Building A where the prisoners grow beans. A high brick wall with two wooden watchtowers occupied by men with rifles surrounds the prison on three sides. The river runs parallel to Building C on the east. There are no guardhouses along the river, which causes me to wonder. Do they think that black women can't swim?
My first day at Sloatsburg--six months ago this Monday--I made a cautious tour of the place, looking over my shoulder as if fearful of my own apprehension. No one seemed to notice, or to care, which I decided was a good sign. I am still making a cautious tour of the place.
I enter each weekday morning through elaborate iron gates, left from the days when Sloatsburg's population was consumptive Irish housemaids and dairy farmers, passing slowly through three security checkpoints with cameras, metal detectors, scanning machines, and electronic hand-checks to a large front hall with a white marble floor. The odor, even in the hall, is female.
My office is on the second floor of Building C. The rooms, on either side of a narrow hall, were once used by patients, but now they are occupied by the medical staff and social workers. The doors to the offices, each with a thick glass panel, are often left ajar, and it is possible to overhear the doctors and their patients. Cameras are suspended from the hall ceiling at intervals of thirty feet, although not inside the small bathroom. The bathroom is reserved for staff. The key is one of several we are meant to keep with us at all times, along with keys to the pharmacy, clinic, file room, and chapel, which is kept locked except when it is used as a movie theater.
There are no windows in the offices. There is a wooden desk with drawers. Three metal chairs--the one with arms is for the doctor. I keep my keys in the desk, as well as a Walkman and CDs for the train ride back and forth to the city, a tape measure in a green leather case that once belonged to my mother, a penknife, tea bags, my personal drugs, an alarm clock, a photograph of my son, pens and pencils, a pencil sharpener, and some licorice. Also a flask of vodka and a map of the prison. An electric kettle, teapot, and two Japanese sake cups sit atop a file cabinet. On my desk is a cypripedium in a clay pot. Some of these things are against prison regulations. With a little reflection, I see that my small attempts to make my office more comfortable, more suitable to my tastes, are a bit spinsterish.
Each morning, after checking the pharmacy's compliance sheet (expiration dates of prescriptions), I make a list of the psychiatrists' daily appointments for the officer on duty, who then arranges for the escorts to bring each patient at the appointed time. The most important events of the day are the two counts--one at ten o'clock in the morning and another at four in the afternoon. Because of the counts, there is only time to see two or three patients a day. In the past, patients were treated by a different psychiatrist every other week for two or three minutes. The previous chief of staff was given large amounts of money by the government to conduct a study of the animal tranquilizer ketamine with inmates used as subjects. Ketamine induces, among other things, hallucinations, light trails, and whispering voices. I've canceled the program.