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Review: The Women Could Fly - Megan Giddings

Genre: Literary Fiction, Dystopian Published: Pan MacMillan, August 2022

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

“This is the story of the witch who refused to burn."

I seem to be of a minority opinion on this one, in not falling head over heels in love with this novel. Instead, for a novel with so much emotional potential, I felt unexpectedly mellow about it; hence my smack-down-the-middle 3 star rating. In short: The Women Could Fly is the latest addition into the quickly saturating genre of feminist dystopia’s, that fails to stick out amongst the bunch by playing it surprisingly safe.

Megan Giddings’ alternate America is an authoritarian, highly patriarchal society, where women are under constant oppression and surveillance, and run the risk of being trialled as witches if they don’t conform. Especially if they happen to be single, black, poor, or otherwise “divergent” from the ideal housewife. Josephine’s mum was one of these “witches”, who disappeared and was never seen for 14 years. Was she executed as a witch, murdered or did she escape to live a life somewhere free of these societal constraints? With queer, black and single Josephine approaching the age of 30, more and more suspicious glances are being cast her way, and the answer to those questions might be the only thing that could save her. When she’s offered the opportunity to honour one last request from her mother’s will (to travel to a magical island sanctuary for witches that only presents itself once every 7 years), Jo embarks on a journey for answers.

What I liked:

The Women Could Fly is a feminist dystopian novel first, and a generational tale of the relationship between the women in Jo’s family secondly. It was that secondary plotline however, that drew my attention at first, and throughout offered the most powerful moments of the story. Jo’s was only 14 when her mother went missing, and as such, her mother’s absence is as much of a presence in her life as anything. This “chalk-outline-of-a-mother” shaped her teenage years, the bond with her dad, and her future relationships. As someone who lost a mother at a young age, this was where the novel shone and related to me the strongest. From trying to gleam any information about your missing parent through stories of others and mundane objects and “creating a narrative around them”, to falling in the risk of creating an idealized image in your mind: Giddings did an incredible job of writing this dynamic. I especially also loved the part of the story that take part on the island, where the ideas that Jo created about her mother are challenged. It tackles a fascinating, but scary question that many of us have asked ourselves: what if we could meet our missing loved once again for a conversation, after all these years have passed? Would it be the way we remember? Would they be the way we remember…?

Unfortunately, after this section, Giddings quickly shifts focus back to society at large, which is where the story began to lose me.

What I didn’t like:

Despite many others calling this novel “timely”, to me it felt actually like the wrong book at the wrong time. As mentioned: I feel this particular genre is becoming quite over-saturated and I’m starting to burn out on reading the same story of “women rebelling against patriarchy” over- and over again. There was the YA-trend of “forced marriage” in the early 2010’s (think Wither), classics like The Handmaid's Tale and The Crucible, and recent big releases like The Bass Rock, Sorrowlandand one of my latest reviews: The Seawomen. The Women Could Fly feels a dime a dozen and didn’t quite manage to add anything new to the mix.

I also struggled with the worldbuilding quite a bit. For starters, there are big sections of info-dumping that disrupt the pacing throughout and made the whole feel disjointed. Despite that there were still some plotholes left, especially when it came to the world at large. Many questions are left unclear: what is society like in different parts of the world? Why don’t more women simply leave the country? What exactly are the LGBTQ-implications like, since it is mentioned that only women can be witches and therefore men aren’t persecuted. But what about trans- and non-binary people? And what about same-sex couples? What about other kinds of intersectional discrimination? The painful part is that all of these questions are touched upon in the novel itself, but never explored in depth. We cannot resent the author for not thinking of these topics (after all: they are mentioned in passing), but it feels more like a namedrop than an exploration. Personally, I would’ve hoped for a bit more depth and the subsequent spice that might have come with that.

Many thanks to Pan MacMillan for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

You can find this book here on Goodreads.


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