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Monday, August 15, 2022

The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings (Reviewed by Daniel P. Haeusser)

 


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OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Megan Giddings has degrees from University of Michigan and Indiana University. In 2018, she was a recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial fund grant for feminist fiction. Her novel, Lakewood, was published by Amistad in 2020. It was one of New York Magazine’s 10 best books of 2020, one of NPR’s best books of 2020, a Michigan Notable book for 2021, was a nominee for two NAACP Image Awards, and a finalist for a 2020 LA Times Book Prize in The Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction category. In 2021, she was named one of Indiana University’s 20 under 40. She lives in the Midwest.


OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Reminiscent of the works of Margaret Atwood, Shirley Jackson, and Octavia Butler, a biting social commentary from the acclaimed author of Lakewood that speaks to our times--a piercing dystopian novel about the unbreakable bond between a young woman and her mysterious mother, set in a world in which witches are real and single women are closely monitored.

 Josephine Thomas has heard every conceivable theory about her mother's disappearance. That she was kidnapped. Murdered. That she took on a new identity to start a new family. That she was a witch. This is the most worrying charge because in a world where witches are real, peculiar behavior raises suspicions and a woman--especially a Black woman--can find herself on trial for witchcraft.

 But fourteen years have passed since her mother's disappearance, and now Jo is finally ready to let go of the past. Yet her future is in doubt. The State mandates that all women marry by the age of 30--or enroll in a registry that allows them to be monitored, effectively forfeiting their autonomy. At 28, Jo is ambivalent about marriage. With her ability to control her life on the line, she feels as if she has her never understood her mother more. When she's offered the opportunity to honor one last request from her mother's will, Jo leaves her regular life to feel connected to her one last time.

 In this powerful and timely novel, Megan Giddings explores the limits women face--and the powers they have to transgress and transcend them.

 

FORMAT/INFO: The Women Could Fly consists of 288 pages with thirty-six chapters, from the first-person point of view of protagonist Jo Thomas. The novel releases from Amistad Press on 9th August 2022 in hardcover.

  

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The world of The Women Could Fly most immediately evokes terror for anyone who is not a cis white male, and a sobering realization that its fantastic dystopia is not too far from past and current realities. There are increasingly vocal and desperate segments of the population who hold similar views to the society depicted here.

 Giddings effectively depicts how her characters in that mold hold world views without recognition of the persecution inherent in it. One official of the Bureau of Witchcraft sums up the outlook during an interview of Jo for suspected practicing of witchcraft:

 

“These women let themselves be transformed until they were no longer recognizable as anything but witches. Evil and lust and power made them take children and eat them, seduce men, seduce women, talk to spirits, create more and more danger. Can you imagine how amazing it is that people are even alive today? That our ancestors survived the reign of witches…”

 

Jo later has thoughts regarding persecutions that come to the same questioning conclusion about the other side of political spectrum:

 

“Were people always this stupid? I wondered, and if so, how did we still exist”

 

I find it very interesting that both sides puzzle over how humanity has survived injustices, and they each see themselves as fighting for what they believe to be good. But, of course, like our own world, the sides come from completely different angles and accept completely different narratives of history and reality.

 

Now, Giddings makes no excuses for fascism here, or any validation of lies, or any sympathy towards the dystopian persecution that Jo and other women in the novel face. However, Giddings does paint a picture in her characters of how policies of persecution and denials of magic in life lead to suffering for all, not only the groups the policies target.

The Women Could Fly indicates that the magic of the witches is not limited to just women, but really open to all, a fact that contradicts the system’s arguments for needing to control and ‘protect’ women, a fact that therefore goes officially unacknowledged. By labeling magic as evil in a rationale for control over female autonomy, society destroys not only the lives of the women (and men) who choose to practice it, but also sabotages their own access to is benefits.

 

One character in the novel speaks to the power of magic and why it has so easily become a basis of persecution:

“Magic when done safely, takes time and patience and community. You need to work together, to learn together, to create something beautiful. And most people, they don’t want to hear that.”

In this way, The Women Could Fly is not just simply a dystopia about oppression of women, gender expression, or racial constructs. It’s about something even more broad in terms of reasons for persecution and their consequences. Community is hard to build, and requires selfless sacrifice. Too often, humans find it much easier to not bother with that, and make excuses to justify selfishness and control for their personal interests alone. It’s a rejection of the metaphorical magic of community, a denial of good that can be had.

 

Giddings then shows how this harms not just the direct victims of the persecution, but all others as well. The biracial Jo has an emotionally complex relationship with her parents: a father who claims to love her, but whose actions prove otherwise; a mother who vanished years ago, choosing personal happiness and peace over the love and responsibilities of motherhood.

 


The conflicted Jo understands the difficult decisions of her parents, yet she also cannot help but look at their choices as a rejection of herself that goes even deeper than society’s rejection of her sexuality and desire for freedom.

“I was so tired of feeling not good enough”

The political persecution of society insists upon Jo’s inferiority. Meanwhile, that same system forces her mother into a life-altering decision that compounds on Jo’s sense of rejection. And it tears down her father into guilt and regret that add yet another layer of repudiation.

 

Two forces in Jo’s life do play a role in making her feel accepted, good about herself. Her long-time friend (and once potential lover) Angie is the first. However, even that strong relationship becomes limited by a watchful society that frowns on single women getting too close.

 

The second is Preston, a man she meets and begins hooking up with for bouts of passionate, no-ties sex. She’s surprised to discover that Preston feels more strongly about her than she first thought, and is interested in a deeper and more constant relationship than perhaps she ever considered. A fascinating and important character to the novel, Preston appears to be a genuinely good person, a man who actually is fine with Jo’s desire for independence and willingness to support her no matter what.

 

Of course, to the system, this is just a sign that he’s bewitched. From Jo’s point of view, Preston represents an ‘out’. A marriage of convenience that would put her out of legal harm’s way. She even does like him, maybe even loves him. However, how can one ever be sure of love in a relationship that is forced? In this way, even a cis white male like Preston becomes a victim of the persecutive society, the potential magical happiness in his life destroyed.

 

Not to make readers think that the dystopia of The Women Could Fly is completely dark, Giddings also makes it clear in the novel that there remains an element of choice in going along with the system. The magic is there to reach for and take. One just need to be daring enough to take it. Jo comes to a realization of this, and has the perspective of how her own life was affected to approach this choice in a different way – with more balance – than her mother once chose.

 

Though the novel begins with the fantastic element of witches and magic being remote – possibly not even real – it does enter fully into the genre of fantasy at its midpoint, becoming more than just literary speculative dystopia. The literal fantasy is wistful and compelling, drawing the reader into its allure of freedom alongside Jo.

 

With all the complex themes and well-developed characters of the novel, Giddings writes in a flowing style that combines easy readability (and short chapters) with atmospheric phrasing and gentle profundity. Readers can fly through its pages and plot, but The Women Could Fly begs for deliberation. It would make an excellent choice for a book club discussion, or personal contemplation alike.

 

CONCLUSION: Literature drawing parallels between historical witchcraft trials and modern persecutions is hardly new, and it might be tempting to view The Women Could Fly as merely a superb, new iteration of that tradition. Yet, Giddings does something more here than offer a dystopian fantasy as standard social commentary on sexism, queerphobia, racism, and related anger/hatred-born oppressions. The novel’s title itself points to possibilities, and magic. A magic that can be reached through a rejection of unreasonable systems and foolish distraction, through an appreciation that power lies in personal daring and forging of communities, freely available to all, for the taking. 

As a complex and conflicted protagonist surrounded by imperfect relationships in a confused world, Jo’s life of yearning for connections with freedom captivates readers and cultivates deep reflection on the relevance of the novel’s themes in our world. The Women Could Fly conjures an itch for discussion and debate while concocting a tremendously enriching read, frightening, entertaining, and wondrous all.


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