Cargo of Orchids
Susan Musgrave's bestselling third novel, Cargo of Orchids , examines the life of a woman on death row in the United States. Our narrator recalls what brought her to this place, where she awaits the last of her appeals. We learn that along with her cellmates, Frenchy and Rainy, this Mother Without a Heart, otherwise known as the Cocaine Queen, has been sentenced to death for the crime of killing her child.
Unlike the others, the narrator has not had a life marked by abuse and hardship. When her story begins, she is translating a book about the kidnapping of a woman connected to a drug cartel. At the book launch, she meets her husband-to-be, a lawyer. When their marriage fizzles out, she falls in love with one of his clients, Angel, a Colombian from a drug cartel family, imprisoned in British Columbia on a drug-smuggling charge. Pregnant, the narrator is taken hostage by Angel's wife to a hot and squalid island off the coast of Colombia; in an atmosphere of extreme violence, she is fed drugs until she becomes addicted to cocaine and useless to her child. When she winds up on death row, it is because the evidence in her trial suggests she sacrificed her baby for drugs.
Her narrative - violent and bizarre, but also riveting and erotic - runs parallel to an account of life in "Death Clinic" at the Heaven Valley State Facility for Women. A moving story emerges of the friendship of three female inmates who share only the fact that they each have a date with the executioner. There is humour and emotion in their lives, however harsh their stories. When Musgrave was asked how humour finds its way into such an unlikely place, she replied, "It's a survival technique. People make jokes when they survive tragedies - that's how they deal with the world."
In this novel about prison and drug culture, filled with brutality and injustices, the compassion we feel for the narrator lends the story a moral message: that nobody is so simply bad as to deserve the death sentence. As the Gazette commented, the book puts "a human face on convicted criminals," makes us face squarely the issue of capital punishment and assess how we judge guilt, innocence and the ambiguous space in between. The Calgary Straight called the book "a love letter to those who are serving time and the families who serve with them." It's also a book about unconditional love and how far we will go for it, according to Musgrave, who spent eight years writing this novel and knows plenty about prison life, having met and married her husband Stephen Reid during his incarceration in the 1980s. She had just finished a draft of the novel when Reid was arrested again following a bank robbery in 1999, just months after the CBC aired a Life and Times documentary about the couple.
A brilliant mix of black humour, stark tragedy and poignant humanity, Cargo of Orchids is Musgrave's first novel in over ten years. She has three times been nominated for the Governor General's Award, once for fiction ( The Charcoal Burners ) and twice for poetry ( A Man to Marry, a Man to Bury and Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries ), and has published over twenty books. She likes novels with intense use of language and good plotting. "I want to give readers a harrowing ride," she says. "I like to think of Cargo of Orchids as a suspense novel which is also an exploration of the heart."
Toronto : Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2000.
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