See how much characterization you get when your characters actually have backgrounds that get revealed in the course of the story you tell? It helps that the two main characters in Pat Murphy’s The Falling Woman are flawed, making them that much more interesting. Mother and daughter, they also share the interesting ability to see shadows of the past, figures moving about in the modern world, partaking in the activities of their earlier life. For example, as they move about Los Angeles, they see Indian woman living their pre-Columbian lives in the midst of the busy streets.
For Elizabeth, in some ways, this talent is a god-send. She has made a career as a popular archeologist, specializing in Mayan digs and describing the lives of the people she studies with gripping stories of their everyday existence. Of course, her advantage is that she can see those lives taking place. Diane was young when Elizabeth divorced her father and has rarely seen her since. And now that the father who forbade Diane to get in touch with her mother has died, her grief and curiosity drive her to find her mother. She does at the fairly obscure site of Dzibilchaltun and the welcome is anything but heart-warming.
Elizabeth remains conflicted about her life prior to becoming an architect. Her husband was stifling, so much so that Elizabeth attempted suicide. Her flashbacks indicate that she loved her daughter dearly, but only had the strength to escape herself. Their reunion is also complicated by one of the shadows that Elizabeth sees around the dig, who unfortunately can see her as well. This ghost is a priestess of the Mayan goddess of the sea prior to the invasion of the Olmecs, and she warns Elizabeth that the cycle is turning, and that Elizabeth and Diane have the power to shape what the next age will be like. Sadly Diane can see the priestess as well, but the mother and daughter never discuss what they see, and so they never know the danger they accidentally place each other in.
Admittedly, the first two-thirds of the novel involve a lot of set-up. Explanations of the Mayan calendar are crucial to the events that follow, and the rest of the time is spent examining the work that archeologists do and both Elizabeth and Diane flashing back to memories of their earlier life. Murphy uses a fairly standard technique of alternating the chapters between mother and daughter, but she intersperses notes from a future book from Elizabeth about her findings at Dzibilchaltun between the chapters. Nonetheless, this is not boring fare; the characters are interesting, exactly because of their weaknesses, and Murphy clearly spent a good deal of time researching not only Mayan life but rural modern Mexican life as well. And of course, deftly woven into their chapters is the hint that something truly sinister approaches and that sacrifices must be made.
And when that something finally does arrive, the reader aches at the miscommunication between mother and daughter, founded by years apart and their individual fears that their bizarre talent is a symptom of insanity. Suddenly old roles seem to assert themselves, mother orders daughter away in an attempt to protect her, and daughter reads that as trying to get rid of her again. At the same time mother also has no idea what her daughter wants from her, primarily because she can never find the strength to ask. And when innocent people begin to be caught in the conflict between past and present, it is almost too much to bear.
The Falling Woman is really a very small book, more about our inability to communicate with one another than any sort of fantastic themes. The ending feels a little rushed and even a little predictable, so it is just a bit unsatisfying. But it was pleasing to see the development of real characters and setting them against a fantastic predicament. The test they face forces inner reserves of strength that neither knew they had, eliminating some of the certainty of the close of the novel. is really a very small book, more about our inability to communicate with one another than any sort of fantastic themes. The ending feels a little rushed and even a little predictable, so it is just a bit unsatisfying. But it was pleasing to see the development of real characters and setting them against a fantastic predicament. The test they face forces inner reserves of strength that neither knew they had, eliminating some of the certainty of the close of the novel.