REVIEW: Secret Lives by Barbara Ardinger
Secret Lives by Barbara Ardinger (CreateSpace 2011), trade paperback, 632 pages. Also available as a Kindle E-Book.
What a remarkable novel this is! Barbara Ardinger’s Secret Lives moves from the Neolithic Old Europe in the Prologue to late 1980s California in most of the rest of the book. The Prologue is set c. 4400 BCE in what is now Romania. At the dawn of the transition from the Iron Age to the Bronze Age, a group of elders, presided over by the oldest woman in the village, a shaman, meet to discuss reports of approaching invaders who kill, rape, and enslave. The shaman tries to encourage the people, offers a prediction, and passes her shamanic staff to a green-eyed boy. She urges the people to leave their settlement so they can evade the invaders; among her words to her people:
"Now hear a new truth. The Great Mother Herself will be forced to hide from those who are coming. She will seem to disappear while they grow strong, but someday She will return. . . ."Like the Great Mother, the shaman seems to disappear. But she returns much later in the book. The green-eyed boy also reappears, in a different way.
Chapter 1 shifts to Long Beach, California, in the late 1980s. We meet another group of elder women. Some of them live in private homes and some live in a residence for older folks, called Center Towers. We meet 72-year-old Herta and her daughter, Milly, who are threatened by a gang of boys on the street. Milly tells Herta, "This invasion has got to be stopped." The gang continues to threaten them and hurl racist and misogynist slurs. Barely escaping, Herta decides her daughter has a point. They meet with their unusual (for that time) circle of women mostly of crone age. The circle decides upon action, which includes bringing out of "retirement" the active and magical aspects of their group. A powerful ritual to create a "guardian" follows. People in some of today’s Wiccan traditions may find the correspondences of directions with elements to be somewhat different from what they are used t0—in this ritual, east=fire, south=water, west=air, and north is "silence" and I assume earth. But, hey, it works!
Chapter 2, titled "Madame Blavatsky Takes a Flying Leap," provides comic relief with the appearance of a cat with unusual traits, whom the group names after the co-founder of the Theosophical Society and who becomes their familiar. This chapter also contains references to some other well-known metaphysical leaders of the 19th century, along with the information that Arthur Waite has "come back as a Muppet." No, I’m not going to tell you which Muppet, but the circle member Bertha does.
The novel moves on to explicitly introduce two of the book’s serious subtexts: aging and the care and mistreatment of elders, especially women. We get to see older women in all their glorious human variety, not always obvious to non-crones. For example, what starts out as a group of old ladies playing gin rummy morphs into a dramatic confrontation with an infamous centuries-old spirit whose views seem to me starkly and startlingly like those of present day Christian Dominionists. The malicious spirit claims to have known all the women in previous lives. In midst of this serious, powerful and empowering event are are several jokes (from our point of view), such as a devout Catholic woman’s accusation: "Queer things. You don’t act like normal women. You meditate."
Ardinger then takes on the subject of sex and aging, both in jokes the women tell about men’s private parts and in the tender sexual relationship between octogenarians Sophie and Warren who, to resolve family conflicts, have a handfasting, performed by Herta. As part of the ceremony a lesbian couple, Cairo and Margaretta, read part of Act 1 Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with Cairo taking the part of Romeo and Margaretta, Juliet.
Another wonderful ritual is woven into the fabric of this novel to celebrate the first menstruation of Janie, daughter of Milly, granddaughter of Herta, after Janie is confronted at school by alarming comments about women’s monthly bleeding. Due to her upbringing among the women in the circle these ideas are new to her, yet mystifying and frightening. The ritual is a formal initiation into the circle, and an affirmation of Janie's womanhood. The discussion about and description of the ritual repeats the words, braid, braiding, braided, etc. For example, Janie’s grandmother tells her:
"Our knowledge comes from many strands, braided together in the endless thread of women’s wisdom."Janie's mother holds out to her daughter three strands of yarn—white, red, black representing Maiden, Mother, and Crone—knotted on one end. She tells Janie:
"But the three goddesses[...]are really one goddess and you can make this unity visible. All you have to do is braid these three strands of yarn together to make oneAfter Janie braids the yarn, Milly says:
"Everything in creation is truly braided together, And look—see how the colors wind back and forth and appear and reappear? That’s life. This braided cord also rebinds you to our tradition and its many blessings."Although used in the book to describe activities and items relevant to the ritual, these words also describes something else, something unstated: The novel is written in "braided" structure, meaning that the chapters can be understood as separate strands (even separate stories) yet, at the same time, also as strands woven or braided together to make the whole of the novel. This ability to write on multiple levels, stated and unstated, realistic and symbolic, reveals Ardinger as an author who is both inspired and highly skilled.
One of the main threads braiding these stories together, from the Neolithic to the late 20th Century, is the invasion and conquering of peaceful and loving groups (and sometimes individuals) by violent people and groups. The historical incidents of invasion and violence are sometimes at first described in such similar ways that I didn’t initially recognize which invasion was being described until the details emerged. This subtle technique of Ardinger’s allows us to recognize parallel events that began with the encroachment of patriarchy and continue to this day.
I’m going to close the review of this wonderful book soon so you can discover the rest of it on your own, but first I want to tell you about Chapter 9, which I think should be required reading for anyone who confuses New Age thought with the beliefs and approaches of Goddessians, feminist Witches, and many other Pagans and Witches. It has some very funny lines, at first as part of a satire, but as the chapter builds, verging into magickal slapstick (some of which is at least equal in comic caliber to passages in, for example, Tom Robbins’ novel, Skinny Legs and All).
Though it is at time extremely humorous, Secret Lives clearly isn’t a light "fluffy bunny" type novel. Its themes are serious; some passages are grim, strong, written with appropriate toughness. Its character description, use of symbolism, and other authorly techniques, including comedy, are dexterously done.
Some extras come with this marvelous book: The front matter offers a "Who’s Who" describing the various characters for easy reference, if you need it, while you’re reading the book. Also Ardinger has put a reader’s guide to the book on her website. Among other things, the guide explains the book’s multitude of literary, metaphysical, musical and other allusions. (I preferred to read the novel and write the review without referring to the guide until I had finished writing everything except this paragraph.)
Barbara Ardinger holds a Ph.D. in English Renaissance Literature. She is the author of five previous books, including the novel Quicksilver Moon and Practicing the Presence of the Goddess. Her website is barbaraardinger.com