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'Queen of the Underworld': Cuban Exiles in Miami

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

An aspiring writer is the protagonist of Gail Godwin's new novel. Her name is Emma Gant and the novel is titled QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD. Alan Cheuse has this review.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

Novelist Godwin self-consciously names her main character after the family in Thomas Wolfe's North Carolina sagas and Jane Austen's well known heroine. This literary-tinged heroine has just graduated from college and narrates the story of how she became a writer. The story begins with her leaving the North Carolina household from which she has been, to use her own recurring motif, usurped, exiled by a bad tempered stepfather and heading to Miami.

A job at the city's main newspaper awaits her as well as her first serious lover in the person of Paul Nightingale, a married man, a Jew and owner of a Miami supper club. Looming ahead are also some adventures in the larger world of politics and history. Emma gets a deal on a room at a local hotel, which as Fidel Castro sets into motion the early stages of his land reform program in Cuba, is rapidly becoming a haven for the first wave of Cuban exiles.

Emma knows a little Spanish from her studies at college, but the short space of a week, she becomes immersed in a crash course that quickly takes her deep into the lives of a truly usurped group of individuals and moves her deeper into her own life and loves.

My plan, she says, was to become a crack journalist in the day time building my worldly experience and gaining fluency through the practice of writing to meet deadlines. Then in the evening, and on weekends, I would slip across the border into fiction searching for characters interesting and strong enough to live out my keenest questions. My journalism would support me until I became a famous novelist. Perhaps I would become a famous journalist on the side if I could manage both. It seems she only managed the former, the famous novelist part, but that's certainly good enough for lucky readers like me and you.

NORRIS: The book is QUEEN OF THE UNDERWORLD by Gail Godwin. Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. ..COST: Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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