I have just discovered Pulitzer Prize-winning Shirley Ann Grau.
Grau’s The House on Coliseum Street, set in New Orleans, has a cast of Southern eccentrics. The house is full of women: 20-year-old Joan Mitchell, her three half-sisters, and her mother Aurelie Caillet, who has been married five times. Aurelie’s current husband also lives there–until he is carted off to a mental hospital.
Characterized by a gorgeous style, realism, and a slight Gothicism, this novel is a gem.
The House on Coliseum Street (1961) is a classic. It is also an astonishing Southern novel about abortion. In the ’60s, no one in the South talked about abortion. After her abortion, the heroine, Joan, numbed by the secrecy, goes mad in the style of the narrator of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is. Okay, she doesn’t go as far as Cordelia, but she goes pretty far.
The novel opens after the abortion, when Joan is waiting for her mother to pick her up. She has been banished to her great-aunt’s house on the Gulf coast, so no one in New Orleans would know. It is so taboo among upper-class Southerners that her great-aunt insists that Joan go to a dance the night before the abortion so one will suspect. Joan got pregnant by Michael, a handsome professor who used to date Joan’s younger sister and asks her out on a whim.
Joan contentedly watches the rain from the gazebo as she waits for her mother, but does not want to return to the house on Coliseum Street. Built by her great-great-great grandfather, it is supported by funds from Joan’s late father, on the condition that a particularly hideous fountain he designed remain in the front yard.
She didn’t want to go home. Maybe because she had the funniest feeling that the house wasn’t real, wasn’t there at all. Nor the people in it…she felt different here on the coast. Not happy, perhaps. But sure. She hadn’t been this sure since she was a child and had gone into the library (a small dark room, its air laced by the carbolic smell of bindings and the sweet odor of mildew, and in a little secretary , carefully locked against the children, the family-written books…)
Nothing is real to Joan because the abortion is a secret. And, typically, her mother denies it by arriving at the great-aunt’s with Joan’s sometimes boyfriend, who knows nothing about the abortion or even her date with Michael.
When she gets home, she reads. She has always been a reader. She takes college courses to get out of the house, and chooses her classes at random. (She does not even know her schedule.) She works in the library, in a kind of attic where she is supposed to fill orders for books that are rarely requested. And she is obsessed with Michael, who takes her out once at her suggestion. He obviously has no interest in her, and she thinks the abortion has made her repulsive.
It takes so long to grow back, she thought; I didn’t know they were going to have to shave there. But I didn’t know anything about it. And anyway, as soon as the hair grows back, there won’t be a mark to show that it ever happened. Not a mark. And nobody will know.
Completely solitary, speaking to almost no one, she is breaking down. But it is the secrecy that has done it. She had fancied herself a mother–the pregnancy might fill her emptiness. She was so passive that her mother made the decision for her.
No wonder she is angry–and more than a little crazy. She stalks Michael and his young girlfriend. And…
Before Roe v Wade, abortion was taboo in the South.
The novel is in print by Louisiana State Press and as an e-book by Open Road Media.