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A Cargo of Orchids

by Susan Musgrave

Susan Musgrave’s first novel in over 10 years has everything her readers might expect from her: rich, lyrical language, bizarre imagery, and an intimate familiarity with the state-sanctioned indignities inflicted on prison inmates. Musgrave’s anonymous narrator – let’s call her “X” – not only loves a man in prison but ends up on Death Row herself, charged with narcotics-related infanticide.

In the novel’s opening, X is in New York for the launch of a book she has translated: the memoir of Carmen Maria de Corazon, wife of a major Colombian drug lord. Bored with her life, X joins Carmen on a visit to her husband in a Vancouver prison. Soon X is romantically involved with Carmen’s brother-in-law, Angel, a pony-tailed bad boy from Tranquilandia, a misnamed dot in the Caribbean with a level of occupational violence that makes Colombia’s seem tame. The story’s descent to murder and addiction runs parallel to the narrator’s inexorable progress to state-administered oblivion on Death Row. Who is more morally deformed, Musgrave asks: the legal executioners or the outlaw freelancers?

Musgrave’s virtuoso lyricism invariably packs a sting within its lushness – a mordant irony, a bruised darkness. The style often tips into out-and-out grisly: blood-splashed orchids, a skull exploded like a can of soup, a fry-up of a severed hand. Yet despite the fascination of the Rimbaudesque imagery and unrelenting casual violence (or perhaps because of it), the pace drags toward the novel’s end. It’s hard for readers to care as much as they should about X’s plight, because for all her feisty rhetoric, she is essentially passive, a mere passenger on the moving platform to hell.