Monday, 31 March 2014
The Wood Wife - beautiful fantasy
The Wood Wife by Terri Windling is the second book I've read for Carl's One Upon a Time Challenge. I read Doll Bones by Holly Black last weekend, and will post about it next time. (It's good, don't worry!) The Wood Wife is one of those fantasy books that comes along a few times in one's lifetime. It's true in some deep way that my bones recognize. A true story telling, that contains so much wisdom and spirit that the reader is enriched in reading the book. At least, I was.
First of all, you should know that I tried twice before in years past to read The Wood Wife, and failed both times to get past the second page. I despaired, because The Wood Wife won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and everyone who had read it has loved it. So what was wrong with me? Then, in a lovely moment of synchronicity, I took out Jo Walton's new book What's So Great About This Book? from the library, and there was a lovely review of The Wood Wife. I say lovely, because as soon as I read Jo's post, I knew that I wanted to read The Wood Wife asap. Luckily for us, Tor has links to past year's posts, and here is the link to Jo's Tor review of The Wood Wife.
What do I think about The Wood Wife? I think it is beautiful. It makes something in me sing, the same thing in me that recognizes that spirit lives in all things around us, and that telling stories brings out magic. Books (telling stories) is a form of magic. In The Wood Wife, Maggie Black inherits a dead poet's house in Arizona. She had been corresponding with him for years, deeply moved by his poetry, but not invited to visit him while he was alive. When she inherits his house, she is surprised, and the novel opens with her arriving at the house. In a way, this is when Maggie arrives where she is meant to be, and the novel is the unraveling of Maggie the old, to Maggie the true.
I love how Windling infuses the book with bits of the poetry the dead poet, Davis Cooper, writes, that has so moved Maggie: a book called The Wood Wife. The poetry Windling writes is lovely and rich, and each chapter opens with a bit taken from the 'book' Cooper wrote. Here is an example, from Chapter Two: The hills call in a tongue
I cannot speak, a constant murmuring,
calling the rain from my dry bones,
and syllables from the marrow.
-The Wood Wife, Davis Cooper.
The longer Maggie stays there, the more she understands about Cooper and what he was writing about. The language of the stones, the trees, the howling of the coyotes, the colours in the sky and the brush, the mountain - all these are alive and sing in the way that the earth sings to those attuned to it. With Maggie hearing this for the first time, we the reader get to experience the land singing, and I found this incredibly moving. I could see the Arizona landscape, the colours, the heat, the way Maggie was experiencing them. It made me want to be there!
There are myths and mythic creatures in this novel, mixing Old World Europe with Native American myths. It feels a bit uneasy, which it is exactly that in real life: the old myths and native American myths are uneasy with one another, although there is enough similarity that some of the stories and figures have gained a foothold here, even blended with one another when they are the same at their core. This is the case of the white stag, which appears in this novel. It is a familiar symbol from European and Celtic mythology, and in the hands of Windling, it becomes something rather more and special with the colouring of the Arizona native people's myths around it. What does the white stag represent? In The Wood Wife, something a little unexpected, in the end.
Maggie is a poet, although she has lost this ability in looking after her first husband. It's a failed marriage that ended some time before the novel opens, except that her ex-husband is still attached to looking after her. It's a theme in The Wood Wife, about artists, spouses, loved ones, some of whom create, some of whom support artists. What is the price of art? What kind of art? When does it become not healthy to seek out the Muse in nature? In The Wood Wife, however, the land and the myths in the land also reach out to the artists, and the book is an exploration of how what one brings to art, also shapes if one survives being an artist or not. It's a beautiful novel, tragic and hopeful, with love resounding all the way through it.
As Jo Walton says (and I completely agree with) in her review, it's refreshing that Maggie is 40 years old. An older heroine, who has life experience already, and discovers how much more there is still to learn, about everything still. I loved this. Life doesn't stop once you have had your first adventure. Sometimes the greatest adventure comes after you have tried and failed at things. Sometimes it comes when after putting aside creative work, something awakens that true thing in the heart that says, yes. I need to write/paint/dance/sing/build/grow, whatever it is that a person is really called to do. This is what makes this novel so true for me, that people are sick when they are not doing what they should be doing, and become well and happy when they are.
"Beauty, motion, that-which-moves."
"Ah. that's what my Dineh relatives would call hohzo: walking in beauty. That is how a man should live his life. If he doesn't, he sickens and dies."
Maggie is wandering, homeless, working as a journalist studying artists and writers, because she is afraid to be open to poetry, and can't hear it any more. She thinks she has lost it forever. In coming to learn about and be around what moved Cooper Davis to write, she finds her way back to what she has lost. That is the way that art works, and creative ideas. They come to you through following what you love, and what inspires you, until you find your way to your true heart.
There are also lovely human characters in The Wood Wife. Dora is sweet and strong, and in despair as she watches her husband Juan pursue what he thinks is true art, though it turns out to be a much more dangerous thing than he realizes. Johnny Foxxe makes music. Cooper Davis wrote poetry, and his wife Anna Navarra painted extraordinary pictures of surrealism in the Arizona landscape, pictures that are lovingly described by Windling, so we the reader can picture them too.
There are Trickster figures, and mythic figures, and powers that stalk the land and watch over it. Once again, as in Charles de Lint's books, there is the sense that the myths are not to be played with. Juan makes a bargain with one of the figures, and almost dies. Cooper did make a bargain, and died for it, as did his wife Anna. Those old stories of faery touching and changing humans, linger here too. There is a price to be paid for seeing the earth as it is, and walking with the figures of myths and stories. Everyone who lives on the mountain is changed by living there.
The Wood Wife reminded me a little of Possession by A.S. Byatt. In fact, I think The Wood Wife is what I wanted Possession to be. I was a little disappointed in the dryness of Possession, in how the critical literary heritage in the book sapped the passion that is at the heart of creating poetry. In The Wood Wife, all that passion for creating remains, and grows, so that making art is revealed as a true calling.
There is a way to tell a story that is true. Poetry, dance, all art have this sense around them, that if they are done true to how the artist feels and sees it, the listener feels it ringing or tingling through them. The Wood Wife has this sense for me. A magical, marvelous true fantasy. I loved it.