Spelling Mississippi

Spelling Mississippi

by Marnie Woodrow

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From an acclaimed short-story writer, a blazingly intelligent and humorous debut novel that is set in New Orleans and tells the story of two strangers whose paths first cross on the remarkable banks of the Mississippi.

Cleo, a Canadian on holiday in New Orleans, is sitting alone in the French Quarter late one night, dreamily watching the river’s lazy…  See more details below


From an acclaimed short-story writer, a blazingly intelligent and humorous debut novel that is set in New Orleans and tells the story of two strangers whose paths first cross on the remarkable banks of the Mississippi.

Cleo, a Canadian on holiday in New Orleans, is sitting alone in the French Quarter late one night, dreamily watching the river’s lazy progress. Suddenly, a woman clad in full evening dress, from rhinestone tiara to high heels, takes a running leap off the wharf into the Mississippi. Cleo watches, astonished, then turns and runs, mistakenly assuming the jumper is dead — a suicide.

But Madeline, it turns out, is not bent on suicide. She is irresistibly drawn to water, as is Cleo, who was conceived during the great flood in Florence in 1966. Perhaps it is this shared obsession with the murky depths that fuels Cleo’s determination to find Madeline. She pounds the quaint streets of New Orleans, city of cheap bourbon, rich turtle soup, the scent of magnolias and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Spelling Mississippi is filled with all the bristling energy of Fall on Your Knees. Told with great humour and affection, it is a seductive, liberating story about ties that bind and those that simply restrain, and a lesson not in spelling but forgiveness.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An affecting tale of one woman's immersion into the gloriously decadent city of New Orleans." — National Post

“The hype around Marnie Woodrow’s debut novel is justified…. Spelling Mississippi is a spellbinding tale. New Orleans is where it happens — that sultry, blues-ridden city — and Marnie Woodrow is a writer who knows how to conjure up a setting…She’s a terrific writer, and her wonderfully wry sense of humour enhances Cleo’s journey…. Spelling Mississippi is the book to read this season and Woodrow, with two story collections behind her as well as this fine novel, is the writer to watch.” — Vancouver Sun

Spelling Mississippi begins with a visually stunning drama that lingers ‘like the ghost scent of fine perfume’ over all the pages to come…. The narrative shifts smoothly between Cleo and Madeline, suspensefully unfurling their pasts, troubled childhoods, backstories ripe with longings and secrets, like the mini-cities of the dead, haunting the present…. Woodrow is a delicious tease, offering cool quenching sips of information, but spiked with intrigue. The story swirls compellingly on, at times funny, wise, erotic, always precisely detailed and vivid. A kind of romantic melancholy permeates the pages…. The charm and strength of the telling is the intimate reality created, the bang-on dialogue and characters [are] fully flesh and blood…. Spelling Mississippi, in the best way, is alive, both spirited and haunted.” — Eliza Clark, The Globe and Mail

"Debut novel surfaces with extraordinary power…. Marnie Woodrow, who in this debut novel already displays a brilliant feel for atmosphere and setting ... invites you in to drink in all that atmosphere, and immerse yourself in her world. Spelling Mississippi is a novel that will absolutely surround you ... [It] reads like a langorous swim to a private island." — Hamilton Spectator

“Southern light shines on stunning debut…. Woodrow has executed the shift to the long form with shocking grace and considerable skill….. Spelling Mississippi is full of intelligence, humour and passion.” — Xtra!

“One of the hottest novels of the season…Not only is Marnie Woodrow’s Spelling Mississippi raising the temperature of book reviewers everywhere, it is set in that most humid of cities, New Orleans….Filled with humour, it is a delicious novel for a very hot July day…. Spelling Mississippi is witty, wise, smart and sexy.” — Andrew Armitage, The Sun Times

Spelling Mississippi…is a sweet, eccentric love story that I wished would go on forever….The story is original, sexy and presents an unforgettable portrait of New Orleans.” — W.P. Kinsella, Books In Canada

“Strikingly written….an entertaining, appealing book….[Woodrow] relies on innovation and overdrive to spur her story, and the result is an arresting and original first novel.” — London Free Press

“With the mighty Mississippi river providing a majestic background of intrigue, and the city of New Orleans the setting for romance and charm, Ontario short story writer Marnie Woodrow makes an impressive debut as a novelist with Spelling Mississippi. She delves deeply into the psyche of her exciting and mysterious characters. The author’s skill in spinning a good yarn is evident. Romance, drama, betrayal and sex — it is all here, punctuated with fascinating historical detail…. " — Winnipeg Free Press

"an affecting tale of one woman's immersion into the gloriously decadent city of New Orleans." — Noah Richler, National Post

“Woodrow’s voice is original, her craft superb…. Spelling Mississippi has a lot of foreward thrust, a steady supply of reasons to turn the page.” — The Gazette, Montreal

Spelling Mississippi is drenched with an eerie and feminine sensuality from the very start. The scents, scenes and sounds of the book are all an elaborate foreplay for the greater things to come….There’s aggravation, mystery and a strange romance that will haunt you long after the last page is read.” — Ottawa Citizen

"Woodrow's lush prose drives a satisfying and coherent narrative…. This is a love letter to New Orleans in all its steamy glory: the magnolias' reek, the non-stop nightlife, the potent Southern hospitality. Woodrow keeps the sexy story pounding along toward Cleo's and Madeline's eventual connection, which is so intense they suspect that something must be terribly wrong. Yet by the end, you can't help but conclude that, with Spelling Mississippi, Woodrow has done something terribly right." — Susan G. Cole, NOW magazine


Spelling Mississippi is charged with the eccentric energies of its characters and its New Orleans setting. A love story that is tender, but also witty, sexy and highly intoxicating.” — Timothy Taylor, author of Stanley Park

"A smart, sexy, moving jazz riff of a novel." — Emma Donoghue, author of Slammerkin

"In this bourbon-soaked barnburner of a tale, the Mississippi River becomes the catalyst for one woman's midnight swim and another's plunge into obsession. The setting is a New Orleans stocked with star-crossed lovers, barflies, thwarted dreams and mother-daughter showdowns. [Spelling Mississippi] plays with notions of fate and inevitability in the characters' lives, themes that fit nicely with New Orleans' reputation for romance and magic.... The novel is, at its root, about people overcoming their tangled, traumatic histories to authentically find one another." — Quill & Quire

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Product Details

Knopf Canada
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Random House
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2 MB

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Read an Excerpt

The Mississippi River belongs to the people. That night, it belonged to just two.

First came the cool, metallic stink of barges moving silently on the river, the ripe scent of things ready to rot and burst from the vines and trees. Magnolia blossoms hung like little yellow corpses, up and down the narrow streets and wider, more American boulevards, their sweet musk a sulky memory. Away from the twenty-four-hour sour of the French Quarter (though still in it, according to any map), she sat alone on the edge of the Governor Nicholls Street Wharf, her feet dangling well above the water. Inhaling the soothing churn of the river, its chilled and unknowable contents, she grew drunk on all these smells -- and so didn’t catch the scent of someone coming up behind her.

The smog and fog tangoed, twisting her view of the opposite shore, now a strip of ochre fuzz between a moonless sky and the notorious water below. The upriver bridge appeared to be a pretty string of lights along which cars sped. There was scant light on the wharf itself, no more than a pale beam thrown down from a lone standard some distance from where she sat. She didn’t see the shadow of a woman racing toward her over the concrete.

The humidity took each individual sound–the thrum of tires on the distant expressway bridge, bass-line thuds from Quarter jukeboxes, horn squeals, a bold crack of what might’ve been gunfire or the rebellious muffler of a car on a side street -- the damp November wind took each of these sounds and perverted them all into one low, seductive moan. A human call rose up here and there, and now and again, a warning blast from a boat. She didn’t hear the small thunder of high high heels coming at her from behind.

The woman had come running, dressed in an evening gown and a rhinestone tiara. She hurtled her body over a dark object, not knowing it was a person, and not caring. She made a perfect arc over whatever it was, hitting the water below with gun-crack precision. There was a tidy splash. Touched by the quick wind passing over her shoulder, and startled by a sudden spray of droplets on her bare legs, the seated woman woke from her reverie. All at once the unexpected presence of a stranger collected in her consciousness: the ghost scent of fine perfume, an echo of high heels hurrying, and a shadow, followed by a splash. She would smell and hear and see these things, in and out of sequence, forever.

Leaping to her feet, the young woman stared out at the water for what felt like a very long time. She stood dangerously close to the edge of the wharf, squinting and blinking. The night murmured and twinkled as it had before, as if nothing unusual had taken place. She peered harder at the water, holding her breath. At first it seemed there wasn’t anyone out there. But her heart roared to life and she stifled a cry as up bobbed some glittering thing a few yards out, surrounded by the arms and legs of someone who now made a fine, if temporary, show of swimming.

But she knew. The young woman on the wharf knew exactly what she was seeing, for who but a suicide would jump into a river so deep-down mean, and in the month of November? And who but a fool would sit there in the dark, courting danger and finding it, too? In that moment she wished she’d been mugged or battered in some other way. An odd thing to wish for, but this woman knew what was happening. Having seen this kind of watery exit from the world before, she did not want to witness a second such act of strange and private violence.

She didn’t call out “Stop!” or scream for help to incite a riot of rescue, nor did she leap in after the woman to make a valiant attempt at salvation. No, she didn’t do any of the things a person in her position ought to have done. She ran.

The young woman ran until the ground beneath her feet turned from wharf concrete to weeds, to rail track and cobblestones slick with fog. She ran without breathing -- or so it seemed to her once she’d stopped. Later on she would realize that the only people who run in the slow city of New Orleans are muggers and dealers and other sorts of criminals, but in those precious moments of flight she didn’t care about local pedestrian customs. She had one destination in mind: away from there.

She ran without releasing the scream that coiled inside her. Her conscience pulsed through the blur as she sprinted: Call the police. There is still time. Call the police. A tourist, she didn’t know that the coast guard patrolled the river or that the police station was very near by. Do something, a voice inside her shrieked. And so she did: she ran.

The river looked after the rest.

* * * * *

When she bursts into her room, the first thing Cleo Savoy sees is the red announcement of the hour glowing in the dark. Switching on every available lamp, she keeps one eye on the clock, as if her safety will increase with the forward march of time. When the numbers advance from 1:11 to 1:12 a.m., she exhales. Locks the door and secures the chain with shaking hands, telling herself, Never happened -- you imagined the whole thing. Yes, she decides, it was a ghost, the kind of river-apparition one’s apt to see after so much bourbon on an empty stomach. A ghost, and nothing more. If it was 11:11 -- I’d make a wish. I’ll make one anyway: I wish I’d never seen that.

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Meet the Author

Marnie Woodrow is a former bookseller and the author of two acclaimed collections of short fiction, In the Spice House and Why We Close Our Eyes When We Kiss — both praised for their richness of detail, authenticity and passion. Spelling Mississippi will be published in the UK by Transworld/Black Swan in November, 2002. Marnie Woodrow lives in Toronto.

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