Gwin, Minrose. The Queen of Palmyra. William Morrow, 2010. ISBN 978-0061840326 pp. 390 $15.99
The Queen of Palmayra was Zenobia, a Syrian warrior queen who led a revolt against Rome and conquered and ruled over Egypt. She was said to be beautiful, intelligent and hold her own against men. Her story fascinates young Florence, the protagonist of the novel, The Queen of Palmyra, who relates it to events she doesn’t fully understand–her father’s inability to hold a job, her mother’s drinking, the racial tensions of the deep South in the 1960s.
After a year on the move, this dysfunctional family returns to Mama’s hometown of Millwood, where she resumes her in home business baking the best cakes in the neighborhood, and Daddy sells insurance by day and slips out for secret meetings on select nights. Much of Florence’s raising is given over to her grandparents and the black housekeeper, named Zenie for the famous queen. When the housekeeper’s lovely niece Eva also returns home, with aspirations to sell insurance to the folks who live in Shake Rag (the “colored” neighborhood) to fund her college education, the civil rights movement moves from television to the local’s living rooms–and things get ugly.
Like one of Mama’s cakes, the story is layered with metaphor sandwiched between similes. It gets a little over the top in places, and in some places, it’s just beautiful, like when she compares some hurtful words to being like yellow jackets (“you know that if you swat at them, they’re going to dig right in and sting the fire out of you. So you sit still and quiet until they take a notion to lift off… I stood there for awhile waiting for Mama’s words to lift.”)
The writing is vivid, with memorable scenes and fine attention to detail, especially where Mama’s cakes and Mimi’s (her grandmother’s) hats are concerned. The idea of story is almost another character in the novel; the narrator goes so far as to characterize different types of stories as different types of people. And, woven in with her own tale, Florence retells stories of Uncle Wiggly, from her father, from Zenie, and from Eva, as well as the bits of advice about baking passed down from her mother that are thinly veiled as insights into human nature. For example, when talking about icing, Florence relates: “She said icing was like some folk’s lives: Timing is everything and when things go bad, they go really bad. They settle into sludge. They cannot be undone.” This is on page 29, and it becomes foreshadowing for how dark the story is going to get.
I especially loved Florence’s voice from the get go, and how nuanced it was–it’s eleven years old with an adult’s hindsight, subtly crafted, and the author doesn’t break from it until near the end, when she decides that Eva needs to be heard.
I love stream of conscious narratives, but not everyone has the patience for them. While things do eventually come full circle, a plot device like the box mentioned on page 3 not reappearing for many pages, and not explained until almost 200 pages in, may be frustrating to some readers.