Small Acts of Courage

marler moorev Small Acts of CourageTHE BIG GIRLS
By Susanna Moore
Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pages, $24

You’ve heard of the unreliable narrator, the antihero, the evil twin. Now meet the enigmatic heroine. Louise Forrest, the watery and tentative central figure of Susanna Moore’s The Big Girls, is a prison psychiatrist­—a master of motives whose own motives are unclear. Why did Louise choose to work in a women’s prison? Why does she fall for the handsome, sneering Captain Bradshaw, a former undercover narcotics detective? Why can’t she effectively parent her 8-year-old son Ransom, who drops a horse turd in her suitor’s cup of coffee? She doesn’t know, and for most of the novel, the reader doesn’t either. If Louise weren’t so unflinching a witness to her own passivity and neediness, she would fade off the page.

Honesty transforms Louise—as it does Ms. Moore’s superb novel, which would otherwise be a joyless catalog of injustices. When Captain Bradshaw, a smoker, first comes to Louise’s apartment, she leaps for an ashtray and finds “a delicate clay bowl that Ransom had taken five months to make in first grade. I watched, impressed by the alacrity of my betrayal, as Bradshaw put out his cigarette in my son’s present to me.”

Another astute observer has her eye on Louise: Helen, her new patient at the Sloatsburg Correctional Institution on the Hudson, who killed her children during a psychotic break. The women pass the narrative between them, with some contributions by others. Helen’s voice is livelier than Louise’s, but both are truth-tellers. From their different vantages, they conduct a casual field study of Sloatsburg. Louise offers dry, ironic notes on its history, current protocols for doctor-patient relationships, and the mutual distrust between doctors and guards, while Helen supplies the nitty-gritty of an inmate’s life: the fights, the “families” and illicit sex, the constant testing of rules.

At the same time, Helen begins to allow the story of her childhood sexual abuse—the origins of her mental illness—to surface. It’s a dangerous process, as Louise realizes. What if a patient’s delusions are what keep her alive? “These THINGS are so real to me or, as [Louise] would put it, so NECESSARY TO ME, I can’t have imagined them,” Helen remarks, “If the Horsemen aren’t real, then I am just insane. The Horsemen believed in me, and I believed in them. They have been with me since I was a little girl. The idea that I might of imagined them, well, I deserve to die if that is true. If the Messengers are made up, and it was me who made them up, then I won’t even get to be with my babies. I will be drowning in the Burning Pits of Hell.”

The failure to protect children like Helen—and the long-term consequences of that failure—is a major theme of The Big Girls, and the reason you will not chuckle your way through this novel. But Ms. Moore isn’t concerned with crime and punishment so much as with the small acts of courage that get children (and adults) out of trouble: telling the truth; believing another’s truth; not being snowed by a sensational tale. The author rises above sensation herself by being nervy and ruthless, never picking the easy way when she could be planting thorns, puzzles and harsh wisdom in the reader’s path.

Regina Marler is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and The Advocate.