[Book Review] Evening conversations with a long-dead Mayan priestess

thefallingwomanThe Falling Woman by Pat Murphy

“I was mad because I said words they did not wish to hear, because they could not control me, they could not drag me along like a tethered dog. And so they said I was mad.”

When Elizabeth, an archaeologist with a track record of making incredible discoveries, looks at a historic site, she sees not just the ruins, but the ghosts of the people and civilizations that once existed there.  It’s a gift she’s learned to live with, and keeps secret lest it gets her labeled crazy and thrown out of academia and into a hospital. But her simple archaeological routine is shattered when, during an investigation of ancient Mayan ruins, the shadow of a long-dead priestess sees Liz and speaks to her…and Liz’ daughter arrives out of the blue, mourning her father’s death and hoping to reconnect with her mother.

This is a story steeped in historical and visual details, and it’s an elegant elegy to the intersection of past, present and the ghosts we carry with us. It is a fantasy or science fiction story only in the sense that the veil is thin between the every-day world and the world of the shadows of history. These fantastic elements are a setup for the deeply human story of a troubled successful archaeologist, a young daughter trying to find her way as her world begins to change around her, and the uneasy search for connection between the two.

It is also a story about the consequences of defiance and the cost (and possibility) of denying society’s expectations. Liz is a woman who walks out of step with society and its expectations, and pays for it in small ways and large. Her fierce lifelong battle for independence and her belated decision to opt out of the domestic dream cost her. And it’s this life that finds eerie parallels with the defiant life and death of a ghost of a Mayan priestess from more than a millennia ago.

It all builds up to a crescendo of bad luck, the turning of the Mayan calendar, a long-forgotten goddess of suicide and healing, and a sacrifice that is being demanded of Elizabeth and her daughter.

It is a lovely, beautifully crafted story with compelling characters and a gorgeous historic backdrop.

Canary Verdict:

(A compelling, atmospheric read.)

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