Juxtaposition of Touchpoints: Pat Murphy’s The Falling Woman
Boxes are comfortable. Writers like to put books in boxes: literary, mystery, romance, science fiction, etc. Certain genres recommend books like friends introducing new friends. I went into the book expecting a fantasy story, but got magical realism. At first it wasn’t comfortable because of themes like self-harm and suicide, but despite the heavy themes, I’m glad I read The Falling Woman because it explores connections between mothers and daughters and between the characters in the book and the past. The Falling Woman is an anthropological ghost story set in the 1980s about an archaeologist who sees shadow spirits. Some books, like annotations, are easy to pinpoint: I approach them looking to solve a problem in my work, or a theme or a character stands out, but other annotations stump me. This one was difficult because I wanted to learn something new. It wasn’t the book itself that was difficult, but was how it was billed as a nebula-winning speculative fiction book. My belief belied the story. I entered it thinking it was going to be an interesting fantasy book that I could learn from, but it wasn’t; it was an archaeological ghost story. By itself the idea is interesting, but this book defied and exceed my expectations. It also made me think about ghosts and I don’t need ghosts in my novel. With this annotation, I explore how Pat Murphy uses expectation of touchpoints and defies norms to give us new ideas about life. Writers can emulate her exceptional thematic weaving skills and learn to bypass expectations and go in a new direction.
Murphy connects epigraphs to vital lines in the text. For example, she quotes Joseph Campbell:
Gods that are dead are simply those that no longer speak to the science or the
moral order of the day…every god that is dead can be conjured again to life. (151)
This is interesting because one of the ghosts in the novel is Zuhuy-kak, an ancient Mayan priestess who wants Elizabeth’s help to resurrect her Mayan goddess (175). As an archaeologist, Elizabeth should be scientifically minded and observe, not participate in the culture she studies; instead, we get a character who channels ghosts. The difference defies expectation. Elizabeth knows a lot about anthropology and archaeology, but she also has something extra which makes this story unique.
Another difference is family dynamics. Murphy ignores the typical family dynamic in favor of a character who is not cut out to be a mother. This is obviously a part of the feminist literature movement, but it is interesting because of the way she portrays Elizabeth’s relationship with her daughter. Pat writes a character whose daughter only knows her through the archaeological textbooks she writes (32). When Diane is a child, she wants to spend Christmas with her mother, but Elizabeth cannot make that motherly connection; instead, she gives her daughter a quetzal feather from a dig (37). When Diane is older and comes to the Mayan dig site, Elizabeth “looked startled and worried, not angry” and says, “Are you all right? What the hell are you doing here?” (43). For a first line to a daughter she hasn’t seen in forever, that’s an interesting one. Not everyone is cut out to be a soccer mom. Pat illustrates the juxtaposition of societal expectations and reality in an original way.
Another touchpoint of the novel is the question of sanity. What does it mean to be sane? In our culture, most people are locked up when they say they attempt self-harm and can see spirits and shadows (51). Elizabeth says: “I decided to feign sanity, to stop watching the spirits and calling to the moon through the barred windows;” Elizabeth has to fake sanity to get out of the psychiatric hospital (52). Pat writes: “A society defines what is normal and what is crazy—and they say anyone who challenges the definition is crazy,” and Elizabeth explores the sacrifice of Mayan culture and the self-mutilation in rituals (125). That is interesting and unexpected. The local curandera, a folk healer, speaks to Elizabeth and she thinks: “The mad recognize their own” because the curandera treats her like a witch (196). Again, expectation defied—and in a really curious way because we expect a ghost story to not have interactions between crazy people, but this book defies the meaning of sane.
The Falling Woman covers large themes through the lens of an archaeologist who doesn’t want to leave her dig. She’s a happy woman who just wants to dig stuff up. My favorite line in the book is about the different archaeologists: “Tony makes pots; John builds walls; and I construct castles in the air” (97). This book is in a genre of its own—it fits somewhere between archaeology adventure, ghost story, and magical realism. But the box isn’t the thing that matters—like books, it’s the content that matters.
This book earned 3 stars.
Murphy, Pat. The Falling Woman. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, Inc, 1986. Print.
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