by Chris Hannan
There are plenty of poets who have also written novels but not many playwrights make the transition from stage to page. Perhaps their economy with language and the skill involved in capturing speech leaves them facing the limitless expanse of the novel with a sense of literary agoraphobia. Chris Hannan has made a name for himself as a playwright who creates strong roles for women so it comes as no surprise that his debut novel has a heroine at its centre nor that he has chosen a historical setting, in this case nineteenth century America. It is 1862 and Dol McQueen, a 19 year old 'flash-girl' or prostitute, has many problems to contend with, her lifestyle for one thing. Girls of her trade have to move where the money is, so as we join her she and some of her cohorts are heading towards the latest boomtown. Life as a flashgirl has its obvious perils and it is only recently that they have arranged a funeral for one of the girls who took her own life, a cloud which haunts the opening chapters. Dol is also an opium user (the 'missy' of the title).
'Now, here's a piece of advice for nothing. No, first off, which brand of opium do you like? If you're a married lady I expect you ask for McMunn's Elixir or Aitken's Family Comforter; you can let the clerk suppose it's for your medicine cupboard if you go to a different drug store every week. Me, I used to favour Braithwaite's Lancashire Black Drop until one day I was broke and had to ask Ness for the lend of some cash to buy some...[she] made me say how much I used per day. Well, I estimated the amount I used and told her a half of it.
She turned away from her looking glass to gape at me and covered her mouth with her hand.'
But it's something she can't do without. There are moments when she makes it sound attractive ('When you take missy you spread out like a peacock's tail, and it feels like that's the number of eyes you have.'), but in the increasingly detailed drug induced passages Hannan shows with great skill the disconnection and danger of the addict. His other skill is of course in character voice. It isn't just Dol who is distinctive, there is a rich cast list including her own mother, a woman with Hyacinth-Bucket-level delusions of grandeur. In fact the relationship between these two women is fascinating. Dol is disgusted and embarrased by her mother whilst at the same time being unaware of how much she is growing to resemble her. Through the course of the novel and Dol's journey their paths cross again and again, their fates seemingly linked together, the forces at work between these two strong women growing in intensity.
Fate is an important theme, there is a real sense that something has been set in motion when Dol comes across a man hanging from a tree, not yet dead. By rescuing this man, a pimp who calls himself Pontius ('When I give a girl her last chance and she bitches it, I get a basin and wash my hands of her. Then I nail her hands to the floor. Catch on?') she creates a destiny for herself. She finds him with a rum crate filled with the purest opium, a cargo designed to link the two of them with its tainted promise of prosperity. When he says that he hopes he can pay her back some day you feel immediately that what he has in mind is revenge rather than reward. Pontius is a hideous character, perhaps only outdone for menace by the group of children, former charges of his, who pursue him and his 'lucky' across Nevada into Utah.
The harsh reality of the journey undertaken is well realised, keep a glass of water handy as you read this book, but most crucially it is the journey of our heroine, the arrival at self-awareness which makes you persist with it. After making a slightly hesitant start as a reader I was surprised by how much I was gripped. It would be easy to dismiss it as just an entertaining romp especially after some fantastic one liners near the beginning (such as the local lawman announcing during a raid, 'Gen'lemen;these officers are middle-aged, underpaid, and married. Don't try their patience.') but the darkening of the prose as Dol's journey becomes a rite of passage makes it a novel which contains much more.