Genre - Historical Fiction
Rating - R - adult themes
More details about the book
Whorticulture is narrated by four different migrant women and, as its title suggests, looks at prostitution in various forms. These include marrying for security and other compromises. By p99, we're at the beginning of Seraphine's story.
Seraphine is what her contemporaries called a quadroon (the daughter of a white man and a mulatta) who arrives at Mrs. Hill's New York brothel with her sister Arlene to look for work. In contrast to the other stories, we're thrown into this environment without being told much about Seraphine's origins other than she is "fled from the South."
When I was writing Whorticulture I knew it was important to get the women's voices right. Katharine, for instance, is a daydreamer who is educated by a lover of literature so her use of language is poetic; Abigail is pragmatic hence her account is precise when it comes to dates and figures; Emily sings so her story creates a kind of rhythm. Seraphine on the other hand is an unreliable narrator:
"Arlene said our father was a low-life carpenter and our mother died long ago so we more or less raised ourselves. It was another lie and I don’t reckon Mrs. Hill believed it any. But if she suspicioned it, she didn’t let on, just set to talking how she runs a fair house and a clean one. That was how we came to stay."
Her story is more conversational in tone than the others (it uses nineteenth century slang) and deliberately less structured. She digresses, she interrupts herself, she draws attention to her own shortcomings as a storyteller. She tells us, on p99, that "Arlene sells her virginity in that brothel just days after we gets there." There's no prelude to this revelation and we soon see there is a curious imbalance in her story between discretion and indiscretion. But she's also direct and often amusing ("In truth, I could smell glorious things and my stomach was grumbling like an old sow’s. The girls was bringing in plates of eggs and ham… I wanted to gobble them down in two mouthfuls but instinct says I had to make like a bird or they won’t like us here") and I hoped this would make her endearing.
As well as establishing the relationship between Seraphine and her sister, p99 also sets up Whorticulture's exploration of historical narratives and history. At the beginning of her story, Seraphine says:
"If I was enslaved, some do-good white up North would make printings of my words – it is a known thing that cruelty makes for most dramatic stories. And though it leaves me uneasy to be dwelling on such like, there is much sympathy for misery and pain. A happy whore is a bad proposition for a book and one likely to offend most all readers."
I don't want to give anything away here but by the end of her story the reader realizes her apparent artlessness is actually very calculated. So in some ways the reader becomes like a client. Seraphine seduces you, not with erotic talk but with her apparent frankness. But once the story is over, you start to question why you let yourself get caught up in it.