Jo's mother, Tiana, disappeared from their Michigan home years ago. She cannot be found, and Jo and her family agree that it is time to have her declared dead in "The Women Could Fly" by Megan Giddings — herself a longtime resident of Michigan who will take up a professorship at the University of Minnesota this fall.
Jo enters the storage unit that houses Tiana's things. "The unit smelled like black and mild jazzes … faint whiffs of her when I opened different boxes. Cedar. Mint. Rosemary. I want to be precise because every time I'm precise about her, she returns for a half-second."
The body blows felt when an evocative scent hits is familiar to those who know that a long-ago grief can be summoned in a single breath. Giddings salts her cloudlike prose with these types of immersive sensory details.
Jo is in her late 20s, a native of Michigan, and subject — as are all women in this novel — to either marrying a man by age 30 or registering as a potential witch and facing stringent oversight. Girls are taught to start monitoring themselves for "magical expression" at the age of 14; witches are denied economic opportunities, and they are also vulnerable to mobs who blame them for an individual's misfortune or some collective catastrophe.
Tiana was a Black woman and Jo's father is white, thus making Jo's identity — her Blackness, her bisexuality, her work at a museum documenting "cursed art" — precarious. The pressure to find a husband has made her dating life fraught; Jo senses that any love she might find is one that can't be free — how can she fall in love when she is being coerced by the state to do so?
But why are women thought to be magical? Tiana argues that it is not only a means of social control, but a diminution of women's humanity. Not only because it led to oppression of those who didn't conform to traditional standards, but because "most of what people believed was magic was actually just a way to wash out the accomplishments of women, make their hard work small."
Giddings takes readers on a journey of magical realism, but in doing so, she asks readers to question how such a world functions against a reality where oppression has circumscribed human possibility. Magical realism creates a possibility of rebellion that lies outside the reach of a surveillance society, but it's one that requires creation of a separate reality. Unable to effect real political change, is it better to retreat? And can individual acts of magic have any effect on systemic violence?
Part of the brilliance of Giddings' novel is that the larger questions she is asking are subtle, and readers who are looking for immersion in a magical world of female autonomy (as Lauren Groff also provided in "Matrix") will find much to love.
As the summer of our discontent scorches us sere, the coolness of Lake Superior's waters and the promise that an alternative world is a boat ride away is a soothing balm. But beneath its surface, "The Women Could Fly" boils as hot as a witch's cauldron.
Lorraine Berry is an Oregon-based writer.
The Women Could Fly
By: Megan Giddings.
Publisher: Amistad, 288 pages, $26.99.
Event: 7 p.m. Aug. 9, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.