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The Falling Woman by Pat Murphy
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's review
Dec 09, 2009

really liked it
Read from March 17 to 26, 2011

Archaeologist Elizabeth Butler has a secret: she can see the shades of people from the past, going about their daily activities. This talent has led to plenty of “lucky hunches” in her career but also to questions about her sanity. Normally she just sees the past scenes playing out in front of her but cannot affect them in any way. But while excavating the Maya city of Dzibilchaltún, she encounters a shade who can speak to her: Zuhuy-kak, a priestess of the Maya moon goddess. The Maya believed that time is cyclic, and Zuhuy-kak sees in Liz a chance to bring certain events in her own life full circle.

At the same time, Liz’s daughter Diane has come to Dzibilchaltún to see her mother, from whom she has been estranged for many years. The two women try warily to build a relationship even as strange occurrences mount up and Liz begins to fear for Diane’s safety. “You will find here only what you bring,” Liz tells us at the beginning of The Falling Woman, and Liz and Diane have brought a complex tangle of love, hatred, fear, and guilt.

Both women keep their emotional distance from the reader, though, for most of the book. This is consistent with the characters’ personalities and histories, and this reserve is skillfully evoked in Pat Murphy’s prose. Sentences are often clipped, and until late in the novel there’s little internal monologue about emotions. Instead the narration focuses on gestures, dialogue, and the external sights that the women see — at least until emotion breaks through the metaphorical dam at the intense climax.

The Falling Woman is an insightful novel about mother/daughter relationships and about culturally relative definitions of sanity. Another issue, that of conquest or colonialism, is not explicitly discussed yet is ever-present. The conquest of the Maya by the Toltecs loomed large in Zuhuy-kak’s life, and in the present day, it’s hard to miss that the Maya still live in the area and that Maya laborers are doing most of the unsung physical work at Dzibilchaltún.

The ending is satisfactory, if slightly open-ended, and through my own lenses I can’t help but see it as perfectly fitting. The ending Murphy wrote, to me, is the resolution of the mistake Zuhuy-kak really made as opposed to the mistake she thinks she made.

As I write this, it’s 2011 and there’s a great deal of buzz about the Maya, due to the persistent legend that the Maya calendar predicts the end of the world in 2012. In fact, when I walked into my workplace cafeteria to read some of The Falling Woman during lunch, a television was playing a History Channel special about the Maya. (I couldn’t hear a word of it, but it provided some stunning visuals to go with my reading!) In the spirit of everything coming around again, perhaps now is a good time to rediscover this thought-provoking book.
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03/22/2011 page 99
08/24/2016 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Sylvie (new) - added it

Sylvie From your review, it seems like the sort of book I'd love to read, however, I have a quick question. I'm a bit wary of books that attempt to tackle the issue of colonialism, I was wondering if you think the brief glimpses were addressed neutrally?

Kelly It doesn't really tackle it per se--at least not in the modern day narrative. There's a lot of stuff about conquests back in the days before Europeans arrived, and then in the present day there are just brief glimpses and I would say they're presented neutrally, yes. It's just something I noticed while reading and wondered if it was done on purpose.

message 3: by Sylvie (new) - added it

Sylvie I've said this before, but when it comes to issues like colonialism, I'm a bit culturally defensive *laughs*, so when a book even mentions colonialism, I perk my ears up. It does bother me when people try to brush off the impact of western imperialism esp. in books, but it bothers me more when they try to justify it as the 'greater good', etc. To make a long story short, I'm glad this book does neither, so I will add this to my reading list. :P Thanks for the response!

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