The Falling Woman - Pat Murphy

TRIGGER WARNING: The book's themes include self-harm and suicide, with several vivid and visceral scenes.


When her life falls apart, Diane Butler succumbs to the impulse to seek out her mother's support.  Her desperation coalescing into impulsivity, Diane hops on a plane to Dzibilchaltun, Mexico, to seek out the famous archaeologist mother that she hasn't seen since the age of fifteen.  But Diane's mother, Elizabeth, has her own problems.  She has long been accustomed to seeing shadows of the past; as she says,

"I do not live entirely in the present.  Sometimes, I think that the ghosts of the past haunt me.  Sometimes, I think that I haunt them. We come together in the uncertain hours of dawn and dusk, when the world is on the edge between day and night."

She is used to watching the figures of long-dead students and pioneers wander the Berkeley campus, to passing by ancient Mayans who haunt the ruins of the pyramids in her current excavation at Dzibilchaltun.   But for the first time, one of her shadows has been able to see and speak to her as well.  The long-dead priestess of a long-abandoned goddess has promised to show Elizabeth a great secret about the ruins, but at a price.  Even as Diane begins to wonder if she is losing her grip on reality and following her mother's descent into madness, Elizabeth is forced to reconsider her own life, her acceptance of her reality, of the shadows of the past that haunt her.  Now, as the days move inevitably towards a new Tzolk'in in the Mayan calendar, both women must come to grips with the past before it shatters their lives.  As Elizabeth warns,

"Do not look for revelations in the ancient ruins.  You will find here only what you bring: bits of memory, wisps of the past as thin as clouds in the summer, fragments of stone that are carved with symbols that sometimes almost make sense."


The Falling Woman is a dreamy, ponderous, darkly atmospheric work, richly embellished with history and archaeology. It reminded me strongly of the Gothic works of Barbara Michaels.  Like Michaels' works, the book revolves around the unearthing and piecing together of the long-dead past, using archaeology as a metaphor for more contemporary excavations.  Murphy's descriptions of the site and the ancient Mayans are richly detailed and constituted one of my favourite aspects of the book.  Her descriptions of the past are elegant and lyrical, brushed with insight:

"In 1568, the Spanish had quarried stones from the old Mayan temples and used them in a new church, building for the new gods on the bones of the old."

I loved the descriptions of Mayan culture, the comparisons against our own:

"We find the Mayan pantheon peculiar.  By our standards, suicide and human sacrifice are unacceptable.  We tend not to notice the peculiarities of our own culture.  We accept the thousands of children who wear braces to correct their teeth, yet we consider the Maya odd for filing their teeth to beautify them.  Each culture defines its own idiosyncrasies and then forgets it has done so."

What would the Mayans--or even the women of the eighties--think of us, we who inject toxic bacteria into our faces to paralyze the muscles, who straighten and die and curl our hair in some places and shave and bleach and tear it out in others, who undergo surgical procedures to suck the fat from our stomachs and implant silicone bags in our breasts? As Elizabeth says,

"A society defines what is normal and what is crazy--and then says anyone who challenges the definition is crazy."

At the same time, I found the discussion of moral relativism a little facile, and the events of the book make it uneasy and contradictory.  Elizabeth warns about the perils of applying modern morality to ancient cultures, but seems to forget her own strictures as soon as she starts considering specifics rather than generalities.

Elizabeth actually says that

"You must be careful about applying your standards to another culture.  They have rules of their own.  This woman may have participated in human sacrifices--but by her standards, that was good. The sacrificial victims went to a sort of paradise, and all was well."

Her comments are too facile, too glib.  I wasn't too surprised when she abandoned her morally relativistic high ground when confronted with Zuhuy-kak and her baby.  Murphy doesn't seem to apply the concepts of moral relativism in Zuhuy-kak's case: it is made very clear that her sacrifice was wrong--sinful, in fact-- and Elizabeth doesn't even bother to mouth her politically-correct aphorisms.  Even Zuhuy-kak abandons her culture's morality:

"You too made a sacrifice that was not good.  You began falling just as I began falling when my daughter died and the power of the goddess died with her.  I began falling long before the priests threw me into the well."


I was also uncomfortable with the way that self-harm and suicide were handled in the novel.  To me, it seemed that Elizabeth used her suicide attempt as a way to wound those around her; as she says, "The pain I felt was insignificant beside the power I would gain." She never confronts the way she used suicide as the ultimate act of revenge against the man she saw as trying to kill her.

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The book is strongly feminist, an exploration of gender and roles that is bound to its time and its own cultural background.  Elizabeth saw her marriage and escaped it, leaving her child behind, a choice under hot debate at the time.  Marriage, and her husband's attempts to force Elizabeth into conformity, is portrayed as a stifling entrapment, a cage, a destruction of self. The ancient ghost of Zuhuy-kak was a strong woman who represented a female goddess at a time when the invasion of the Toltecs pushed the Mayan culture towards patriarchy.  As she explains ruefully,

"I was mad because I said words they did not wish to hear, because they could not control me, they could not drag me along like a tethered dog.  And so they said I was mad."

Despite its attempts to escape it, book is deeply rooted in the morality of its time. It explores themes of entrapment in a way that reminded me again of Michaels:

"There are shades of reality. Metaphor is reality once removed.  I said that Robert wanted to kill me. Really, he wanted me to be quiet and compliant, as good as dead."

Although it is explored in a somewhat open-ended way, Elizabeth's decision to leave her role as mother is equated to Zuhuy-kak's sacrifice of her child. As she says,

"We both made sacrifices that were unacceptable. We both had failed."

While the book never succumbs to romance, the women certainly spend a lot of time thinking about men.  I'm still not clear on what role Mario was supposed to play in the story, and Elizabeth's lack of interest in romance--and Tony-- seems to be portrayed as part of her scars:

"Somewhere at my center, with the madness I had locked away, I had sealed off the part of me that knew how to love.  It was too close to the part of me that knew how to hate, and that was at the center of my madness."

The book seemed meticulously researched to me, but I also wondered about a few details; for example, Tony cleans potsherds by "popping them into his mouth," which not only seems disgusting and potentially catastrophic to the potsherd, but given that many pottery glazes are poisonous, it also seems downright dangerous.  I can't quite imagine that it is a common practice.

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The Falling Woman is thoughtful and open-ended, yet never quite manages to escape the fetters its own time. Perhaps because I'm used to the cut-and-dry wrap-ups of detective fiction, I felt that the plot never quite crystallized into clarity, leaving a series of dangling threads and ambiguous subplots. Like most of the supernatural gothic suspense that I have encountered, most of the book is devoted to slowly intensifying a pervasive sense of foreboding by juxtaposing commonplace events with ambiguous omens. The Falling Woman is an atmospheric and elegant work, a meticulously researched exploration of Mayan culture, a thoughtful exploration of feminism and sacrifice.  For Diane and Elizabeth, disrupting the rubble of the past may only undermine the future.


~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Open Road Integrated Media, in exchange for my honest review.~~