Review: Megan Giddings’ post-Roe dystopia , ‘Women Could Fly’

On the shelf

The women could fly

By Megan Giddings
Amistad: 288 pages, $27

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If The Women Could Fly was a kitchen, I would be in it, shadowing author Megan Giddings, watching her hands and responding to her directions with: Yes Boss! Her choices on the side — the salty and sweet moments, the acids on the plate — are on fire. Sometimes a literal fire, like burning a witch.

The protagonist Josephine’s great-great-great-grandaunt was among those who burst into flames; Her cremation took place on the beach. In the version of the story, their descendants prefer to tell: “Our ancestor, unable to endure the fire any longer, flew off the pillar and threw her burned feet into the sea. The smoke and steam cleared and became a week-long fog. It crashed ships, blanketed the city and scared people who tried to burn it to leave their homes.”

Times have changed – but not really. Josephine’s presence, in which a totalitarian state watches single women for signs of witchcraft, draws from our own in much the same way The Handmaid’s Tale extrapolated from the Reagan era: less of a prediction and more of a warning of where the journey is headed goes in a post Roe vs. Wade America. Throw in some grown-up “Harry Potter”—except that in Giddings’ imagination, magic is a myth serving the patriarchy.

“The Women Could Fly” is certainly a gentle simmering of violence against women’s bodies – but above all a simmering of the mind. She builds and deconstructs complex themes without haste, and revolves mainly around what it can mean to be a woman in patriarchal societies on the hunt for “devils” who could be you.

Giddings, whose previous novel Lakewood, her debut, was about medical experiments on women of color, introduces us here to bisexual Josephine, nicknamed Josie, who is expected to marry soon because society vouches for perfecting women through marriage to a man for their humanity.

And because black women are among those most likely to be witches, she’s most likely to need a man. If a woman doesn’t get married by 30, she could be a witch, and Josie is 28. Not only is she staring down the barrel of that gun, but she’s also in the sights of someone she doesn’t know.

“I should trust that the government has my best interests in mind,” she tells herself. “All I had to do was shut up, get married, try to be nice,” and follow the system. A system that, like that of recent seasons of Westworld, tells us who we should be and keeps us from questioning the nature of our reality; a system that gives us answers before we know we have questions.

Girls are monitored in high school from age 14 for signs of magical expression and given tests to determine their likelihood of being a witch. Physical signs include “floating in your sleep,” “unconsciously repeating yourself three times,” and “wanting to teach others cruel lessons.” Another sure sign: Answering yes to the question, “Have you ever felt as if you were possessed by the spirit of righteousness?”

"The women could fly: a novel" by Megan Giddings

In Giddings’ world, derived from our own, social justice is treated as social poison. And those who dare stand up and hold the nation to its dazzling promises of equality will be fired, gassed and branded as whiners or would-be victims… no, witches.

As Josephine drives through Michigan, the street signs read, “GOD PROTECT US FROM BORTION, WITCHES AND LIBERALS. (We laughed at the absence A.)” Flags on lawns have a hue familiar to everyone in the MAGA world: “Every kind of flag was a I-need-attention red… someone finding a way to tell me how much they hate me.”

How enforcement works: An unmarried woman over 30 must register for government surveillance and, if proven magical powers, must give up public life, submit to electronic surveillance and travel restrictions. Not registering is tantamount to relinquishing the right to privacy, employment, and more.

Almost everyone in this society agrees that this is correct. There are some outliers: protesters like Josie and her friends – particularly her wise friend Angie – who once fought state-sanctioned witch burnings, raised money and held teach-ins to take up the story of queer, black or indigenous people who were convicted be witches and get burned.

Josie wonders why she “lets cops yell and tear gas at me, nuns worship me, counter-protesters throw things at me”. Because she knows something is wrong. She knows from memories of her mother and her ancestors, stories within stories that have been passed down to her, finally from a rummaging through a storeroom – and finally from a phone call from her father. He read her from her mother’s will.

Josie’s mother, Tiana (“Ti”), had been gone for 14 years. There had been an investigation and a television program into her disappearance. All women who disappear are investigated for witchcraft because the government always assumes that whatever happens to a woman is somehow her fault.

Josie’s father and the government concluded with absolute certainty that Ti had died, but ‘dead’ wasn’t something Josie liked very much. But reading Ti’s Last Wishes takes Josie on a journey to learn her mother’s story, to encounter the fantastic, to discover herself and her own power – and to fight. This will be her salvation.

Giddings has an incredible understanding of the American family, religious nationalism and its impact on everyone. She writes with wisdom, grace, and a dexterous hand; Her work is seamless on the site, especially on issues of identity and all kinds of diversity that might feel didactic in lesser hands.

This is partly due to the depth of their characters; they are not archetypes but real people in unreal circumstances. Baked into Josie’s unforgettable dates with husband-wannabe Preston (aka “Party City”) is the secret ingredient to every successful relationship: trust, honest expectations, presence of mind, the thrill of satisfaction. For Josie, this is a perfect substitute for performative romance, including marriage. (And for her mother, the feat of being a doting parent.)

The arcs that Giddings draws through Josie’s core relationships – with Preston, with Angie, with her parents – shimmer with intelligence and humanity and determine her fate.

If this all feels like raw material for a binge-worthy television series, it’s not because of this novel needs adaptation, but because it feels flexible and transcends familiar shapes. And yet it succeeds exquisitely as what it is. Like a woman without a partner, Giddings’ second novel is already finished.

Deón is a criminal defense attorney, college professor, and most recently the author of the novel The Perishing. She lives in Los Angeles. Review: Megan Giddings’ post-Roe dystopia , ‘Women Could Fly’

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