Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

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I find them odd, these little serendipitous links that occur when I’m reading. When I first read the Wondla books by Tony DiTerlizzi I’d just finished Simon Barnes’ Ten Million Aliens which weirdly turned out to be the most perfect thing I could have read to prep for the Wondla trip, (I’m not telling you why, read Ten Million Aliens and then the Wondla books for yourself if you want to know what I’m on about!) Likewise, recently I enjoyed Robert Llewellyn’s vision of a beautiful supergreen future, News From Gardenia, and privately lamented that he didn’t go into as much detail as I’d have liked, only to start Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and find myself in a similar future with vastly more depth (no criticism of Llewellyn’s book intended – each book is a different thing, a world unto itself, and I’m no judge to set one up against the other; also, it’s only ever my opinion I’m giving, and who the heck am I anyway?).

I’m excited about Woman on the Edge of Time for so many reasons. Most trivially, it was first published in 1976 (before I was born, but also, more than ten years ago, which is the relevant thing), so it can count as the first of my Book Bingo goals and I love being able to tick something off a list – yay! Secondly, it was lent to me by my fabulous friend S, which makes me feel all warm and cuddly towards her because she’s someone I admire, and she said it was good, and it was good, and that makes me irrationally happy; (incidentally, S has an awesome blog about green and friendly things that I love, and you might love it too, she can be found here). Thirdly, this book stands the test of time – I’ve just read it forty-one years after it first hit the shelves and I found it believable, compelling, heart-wrenching, beautiful, stirring. And topical. Nothing felt out of date for me, and the two visions of the future that Piercy presents during the course of the story were both still plausible and fascinating. And most importantly/fourthly, this was one of those books that reminds me just why I love to read so much. I use the word awesome a lot, but with reason, I do feel in awe of authors who can create such complete, alternative worlds; can communicate them so perfectly that I can see and touch and taste that world. It is an awesome power that authors have, and an awesome thing that books can do.

I don’t think this book would be all those things if Connie weren’t such a great character. She is literally the beating heart of the story. Piercy reveals Connie to her audience in such a way that you could, if you chose, question her sanity throughout the book. I chose not to. I read a lot of SFF, and it just didn’t work for me to believe the whole thing a figment of her imagination. I could argue quite successfully that I’m right about this, but I won’t because there’s much more interesting stuff to talk about. Anyway, Connie is a wonderfully watchful and sensual character. Living in near-poverty, having lost pretty much everyone she’s ever loved and everything she ever had, a second-class citizen as much because of her sex as because of her heritage and her personal history, and having little education, she nonetheless appreciates beauty where she finds it. During her first interactions with Luciente, her visitor from the future, she pays attention to Luciente’s physical grace and beauty, as she does to that of fellow mental hospital inmates Sybil, Skip and Alice. And she is still open to love, despite the life she’s had. I think that’s what I liked most about her, what kept me reading on, was her capacity for love and connection, (and her smacking that snake Geraldo in the face with a wine bottle – gotta love her for that too).

Piercy’s main vision of the future, Mattapoisett, is all about connection: Humanity’s connection with the earth; our connection with our past; our connections to one another. The mind-body connection has transformed how we work and how we heal so that drugs play very little part in this future’s medicine; also, interestingly, women have given up that ultimate connection, childbirth, in the interests of balancing out the power between men and women. Nobody gives birth, children are born in a building. Everybody and anybody can be a mother (there are no fathers), and every child has three. Humanity has gone back to the land and life is as much about getting in the harvest as it is about connecting with ourselves, finding our happy and following our passions. And sleeping with whoever we want pansexually. I suppose it is very much a product of its time, when I type it all out like that it certainly sounds very Summer-of-Love-ish, but it reads way better than it sounds, I just can’t do it justice. All I can say is that this is a future I very much want to believe in and that I enjoyed immensely. We’ve even learned how to talk to animals – for real!

Connie’s struggles in her own time seem at first to have very little to do with this rather lovely future she can visit at will. As things progress, there are a couple of comments made about time and Luciente’s future not being a set thing but one of many possibilities, and then Piercy turns the knob on the microscope and things kind of slide into focus a bit, and you maybe feel a little chill as you start to put things together. In her own time, Connie is part of an experiment. Possibly as a result of that she visits a second future very different from Mattapoisett, where things have not gone so green. And partly as a result of that Connie sees how it may be up to her to ensure that the better future happens – she sees her own connection to the future of Luciente, and she sees too how she maybe has a little power when throughout the book she’s had none. Because that’s the other thread running through this whole story: power. Those who have it and those that don’t. And the two futures reflect the two extremes that humanity can take.

 

IF YOU HAVEN’T READ WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME AND THINK YOU MIGHT, STOP HERE. IF YOU’VE ALREADY READ IT, OR DON’T PLAN TO, CARRY ON AS YOU LIKE …

I try not to spoil things. I try not to write anything that I think will ruin a good surprise or an excellent development for anyone thinking about reading a book I’ve decided to write about … on the off-chance that anyone is actually reading anything I have to say of course! But I’m not sure how I felt at the end of this book. Connie has taken a powerful action, something I applauded her for in the same way that I applauded her assault on Geraldo at the beginning, but she has also seemingly lost her way back to Mattaposiett – she can never go there again. She can never know the results of her actions. We leave her knowing that she no longer has even that temporary escape, and she will never be going home again. And then the final chapter gives us some of the clinical notes made about her, and they reduce her down to a nothing, a nobody. It’s going to sound melodramatic, but it broke my heart after getting to know Connie in all her love and humour and guilt and rage to see her reduced back down to, not a patient, not someone worthy of attention and support and help, but an inmate, little more than an animal. And I don’t quite know what Piercy intended, what I’m supposed to do with it. Am I supposed to be angry at the end? Scared? Is it supposed to incite me to riot?

All I felt was sad. I liked Connie so much. I hated how she was treated by Dolly, Geraldo, her brother Luis (I kept hoping she’d bottle him in the face too) and all those doctors and nurses; I felt her powerlessness. And after everything that happened to her I just wanted her to have some sort of happy ending, one where she was happy and able to rest.

Fasure.

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