Wednesday 5 September 2012

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

Leaving behind her fashionable West Coast life, Maggie Black comes to the Southwestern desert to pursue her passion and her dream. Her mentor, the acclaimed poet Davis Cooper, has mysteriously died in the canyons east of Tucson, bequeathing her his estate and the mystery of his life-- and death.

Maggie is astonished by the power of this harsh but beautiful land and captivated by the uncommon people who call it home-- especially Fox, a man unlike any she has ever known, who understands the desert's special power.

As she reads Cooper's letters and learns the secrets of his life, Maggie comes face-to-face withe the wild, ancient spirits of the desert-- and discovers the hidden power at its heart, a power that will take her on a journey like no other.

Goodreads Book Description

I always have a bit of a problem with books about writers or artists and this book has both. My creative English teacher, who first recognised my skill as a writer and poet, taught me to avoid writing about writers, regarding it as self-indulgent. Unfortunately there are a lot of books and art that are self-referential nowadays, indeed it seems to be highly popular with the people who give awards and other accolades. On the face of it I should have had a problem with this book, but I didn't. 

Why didn't I? Well, despite being on the face of it about art, it is actually about magic as reality. The poet Davis Cooper and his wife Anna are dead by the time the story begins and yet they are major characters in the book. Cooper's poems and letters punctuate a tale seen primarily from Maggie's point of view, Anna's mystical pictures are a dark presence in the book. The poems and art portray creatures which at first we might believe to be fantastic and archetypal, but during the course of the book are revealed to be real. These creatures are clearly drawn from the Native American myths, but as a Brit I was interested to see that they bore similarities to British mythic figures - such as the horned man and the wild hunt. I was reminded of the work of the British writer Alan Garner, who portrays a modern world in which the old gods are just below the service.  

The characters are part of the landscape: 
Windmage/Owl Boy: Sky
Rootmage/Root Mother: Earth
Floodmage/Drowned Girl: South etc.

The landscape, the flora and fauna that live within it, are beautifully portrayed in the book. I do not know the desert of the South West, but I felt I was walking through it. The other characters are also well drawn with complex personalities, which at times merge with the mythic. The only fault I would find in the characterisation is that Maggie and all the others accept the reality of the mythic creatures without any resistance. I would have thought that at least one of them might have struggled with the idea and thus given us a bit more conflict. But then I suppose I can't have it both ways!


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