Some stories write themselves. They unfold seamlessly, with all the hills and all the valleys shifting in to place without a struggle or a strain. And though it seems the miasma of tall tales linked to the fabulous Madam Lash would fall in to that category, it is just not so. When left to its own devices, Gretel Pinniger’s (Madam Lash) story comes out all wrong. The arcs are too big, the inclines too steep. People confuse Gretel with her creation. People exploit Gretel to get to Madam Lash, and they exploit Madam Lash to get to their audience. Then, after the spectacle of the alien amongst the peasants has evanesced, and all the novelty has slipped away, they leave two thirds of the story untold.
Sam Everingham’s book doesn’t walk out at intermission. Though the thread of reality tying Gretel Pinniger to this world at times becomes tenuous and waifishly thin, he follows that thread through to its end.
Madam Lash chronicles the saga that created the masterpiece. It’s the first story I’ve seen on Gretel that makes sense: it begins with an introverted, isolated child and ends with an introverted, isolated woman. It documents the amazing things she was able to pull off in her heyday, as well as the failures she, and those she inflicted them on, managed to endure.
It doesn’t do the done thing–the easy thing–of painting her as an entertaining sideshow, and making that the story. It is a quieter look at Gretel, possessed of more empathy, and it shows us that her spectacular, strange exterior is just the obvious symptom of a fractured, battered interior. It strips back all the bullshit and the theatrics and shows us a picture of a woman who never found the acceptances she craved, who was rarely taken or approached as a whole and who gave so much to wind up alone. It is incredibly sad, and sadder still because she seems oblivious to that.
Everingham does a remarkable job of sketching the outline of Gretel’s tragedy with understated prose, and allowing her words and those of the people she surrounded herself with to animate the rest. His approach captures the delirious realm Gretel has lived in all these years, and in doing so allows us to finally gain some understanding of the woman in leather.
In short, I love Gretel Pinniger, and I love Madam Lash, and this book taught me how.