Kerfe's Reviews > When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
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's review
Jun 20, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: essays, biography-memoir, non-fiction
Read in June, 2012

"My mother left me her journals and all her journals were blank."

I'm sure this quotation is the centerpiece of most reviews of Terry Tempest Williams' own journal/meditation/autobiography. What does this mean: what is this gift, this legacy?

She calls it also "Fifty-four Variations on Voice", and voice, present and missing, is certainly a focus. But thankfully the author rambles. I was especially taken by her thoughts on blankness, negative space in both sight and sound, how absence is its own presence.

Williams asks many many questions without demanding or even expecting answers. She's comfortable with opposition and ambiguity. She welcomes and embraces change. She has lived her life thoughtfully.

But she's so serious! so solemn, ponderous, and full of gravity.

Williams cites "Siddhartha" as an influential book in her life, yet fails to assimilate and channel his endearing ability to laugh at himself and human existence, to see the absurdity of what is happening. I can't imagine her ever just looking around, throwing up her hands, and grinning at the craziness of the situation.

The repetition of the sentence staring "My mother's journals are..." is a unifying element throughout the book: an obsession, a white tablecloth not yet set, an opera, the tennis matches she won, salt, written with invisible ink, an act of defiance, evidence, her colored hair left white, written in code...more than 100 times she gives them a different name.

But maybe they are also a joke.

Maybe they are saying, "Really, what silly and vain creatures we are and what strange and indescribable lives we lead."


"My mother's gift is the Mystery. Each day I begin with and empty page."

Terry Tempest Williams has filled these pages with good, wise and interesting thoughts. She likes oppositions. But the other side of tragedy is MIA.

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