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Book review: <i>The Big Girls</i> by Susanna Moore

While certain television shows and movies may strive to make prisons look as realistic and shocking as possible, they still can’t prepare you for the vibe of the whole thing in reality. On the other hand, Susanna Moore’s The Big Girls provides a wretched and unglamourised look at a women’s prison, following the stories of an inmate, a psychiatrist, a corrections officer and a movie starlet who are all connected in some way, displaying the unlikely relationships that provide a catalyst for several life changing experiences.

The story

We meet Dr Louise Forrest when she has been one of the psychiatrists at Sloatsburg women’s prison for six months, and is settling into her own routine with the prisoners. While she remains aloof with her work colleagues, she is developing some strong, some would say inappropriate relationships with her patients, particularly Helen. But why does Dr Louise have such an affinity with Helen?

Helen is serving a life sentence for the horrendous crime of murdering her children. She was expecting the death penalty, and her disappointment combined with the voices of the messengers that she hears in her head caused her to end up under Dr Louise’s care. Helen likes Dr Louise, and slowly, Helen’s tragic tale is told. At the same time, Helen begins secretly writing to Angie the movie star with a secret...

Angie receives a letter from a woman in jail, which her lawyers tell her to ignore. Angie has problems of her own; new boyfriend, troubled step-son, trying to hit the big time... but she still takes the time to involve herself in responding to Helen. What she doesn’t realise is that she’s dating Dr Louise’s ex.

Retired police officer Ike Bradshaw is liked by the prisoners at Sloatsburg, because you don’t have to sleep with him to get what you want. On a bet from another officer, Ike asks Dr Louise out, and to everyone’s surprise she says yes. This leads to a somewhat difficult affair, complicated by the issues that the two of them have and the feelings of Dr Louise’s son.

Things can’t continue the way they are going for any of the characters with their secrets, lies and family histories. Something has to give...

The style

The Big Girls is constructed in an interesting manner because it is written in the first person entirely, but from four different points of view—namely Dr Louise, Helen, Ike, and Angie. The paragraph breaks separate where one character ends and where the next one starts. While I was initially skeptical of this set up, thinking it would lead to confusion, Susanna Moore handled the intricacies of the narrative masterfully. Each character has a completely unique and utterly believable voice, which makes the differentiation easy. It also allows the reader an intensely compassionate and, at the same time, voyeuristic experience, and allows the reader to get the most out of each character. There were probably two points in the novel where I found it difficult to tell who was speaking, but at the end of these passages the narrator was revealed and the confusion had been deliberately placed there by the author to highlight a similarity between two characters. I really enjoyed the construction of this story, although I would imagine that only an extremely clever and experienced writer could pull it off.

The two strongest characters are Dr Louise and Helen, closely followed by Angie. Ike is definitely the weak spot here; whether Susanna Moore was so much into the heads of three different women that the male character suffered as a consequence or whether she deliberately intended Ike to be the weak spot without as much narration is unclear. The relationships and intricacies of the families involved are impressive and complex, and the story is excellent without succumbing to sensationalism in what is a very sensational topic. The Big Girls is both haunting and more-ish and I recommend it.

Who is this book for?

Although this book is smoothly constructed providing fairly easy read (it didn’t take me long to get through), the topic isn’t exactly light and fun-filled so it’s not a book that can be picked up and tossed aside when you finish it without a bit of contemplation in between. It is a good read, but within the right head space (for example, if you have, say, have post-natal depression, maybe not). But, if you aren’t feeling generally or specifically depressed, then I recommend it.

In short

Title: The Big Girls
Author: Susanna Moore
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 9781400041909
Year published: 2007
Pages: 224
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Prison literature, Psychological novel
Review Type: