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The Falling Woman
by Pat Murphy

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

This is a good book, winner of the Nebula for 1987. I'd have to re-read some others to confirm, but I'm thinking at least three from that year are better, including the Hugo winner, David Brin's The Uplift War. It was published by Tor, identified as a fantasy on the front of the hardcover I have, but it could be argued that The Falling Woman is more of a psychological melodrama rather than what most people think of as fantasy. As I said, it's good, so that is not a criticism, just an observation. The main characters are archaeologist Elizabeth Butler and her estranged daughter, Diane. They have not seen each other, or communicated, for several years. Diane's father has recently died, she has broken off her affair with a married man, and quit her job, but even she doesn't know why she shows up unexpectedly where Elizabeth is working at a Mayan site in the Yucatan. The story is told in alternating chapters of first person accounts by Elizabeth and Diane, as well as occasional excerpts of notes for a book Liz is writing.

The narratives are not just concerning the current events, they both flash back to earlier times in the women's lives. Liz left her husband when Diane was very young, and they both comment on a particular Christmas when the girl was about five. Her mother's visit was very brief, ending abruptly after Diane asked if she could come and stay with her mother for a while. At that time, Diane was not aware of earlier events, her mother's failed suicide attempt, time spent in a mental hospital, her struggle to pull herself out of depression. Liz's co-workers think of her as eccentric, a grizzled old archaeological veteran who keeps to herself too much, talks to herself too much. Or is it the spirits of long dead Mayans that she talks to? Here arises the question, is this a real fantasy, are those spirits manifesting themselves to Liz for a specific reason, or is she hallucinating? Her uncanny luck in digging in the right places, making remarkable finds, suggests the former is a possibility.

If she does possess the ability to pierce the veil of time it is not a recent phenomenon. She mentions walks through her Los Angeles neighborhood, sometimes alone, sometimes with the toddler Diane in tow, in which the housing tracts and streets disappeared, and she saw the landscape of another epoch, or witnessed the activities of the Native Americans who wandered through or called that place home. I don't recall a mention of it, but it is possible Liz told the young Diane about that, and it was something the trauma of her father's death brought back to her. On the balcony of her father's L.A. home she imagined that the city disappeared, and she was witnessing the area from a previous time. That might have been the reason she felt compelled to see her mother. At the Mayan dig, Liz sees random workers, women weaving baskets, men toiling in the fields, but mainly it is Zuhuy-kak, the specter of a sacrificed priestess with whom she has conversations. She believes Zuhuy-kak is the one responsible for the Mayan's abandonment of their cities when the Toltecs invaded, long before the coming of Europeans.

It doesn't matter if the spirits are real, it's still a well-written book, an interesting character study of two lonely women; the daughter desperate to know her mother, the mother who seems incapable of knowing herself much less her daughter. There are times it seemed they were finally getting closer, that the rift would be closed, but either the spirits of the past were too strong or Liz was too weak. Zuhuy-kak tries to convince Liz that she should sacrifice her daughter, as she herself had done a millennium ago. Liz desperately tries to get Diane to leave before tragedy strikes. I won't reveal the climax of course, only say the action of the last few chapters is quite different from the slow, methodical, emotional build up to that point. Is Liz crazy or psychic? If she's crazy, then maybe her daughter is too, and Diane thinks that might be okay.


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Pat Murphy



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