Woman on the Edge of Time (Book Review)
by Marge Peircy (1976)
4 / 5
A novel that keeps you wondering, Woman on the Edge of Time is a penetrative gaze into the way mental illness, race, and gender were treated in the 1970s, using an unreliable narrator as a vehicle to show the systems that oppress, confine, and break down everybody over time, but especially those who need help the most.
In truth, I give this novel a 3.5, but I’m bumping it up to 4 because I think its dated facets contributed to some of its lackluster elements.
After violently defending her niece, Connie Ramos is placed in a mental institution. While there, she is connected with Luciente, a person from 100 years in the future, via a mysterious mind-link.
This is not a conventional novel, even more so for the 1970s. While hardly confusing like current experimental novels, the book does play with the reader’s perception of reality. Is Connie truly connecting with a future Utopia or is she indeed as insane as the doctors and society claim?
I assumed this would be the basis for the plot, but it isn’t. Based on the back blurb, I figured the novel would crux around Connie having to escape the institution and amend something in our timeline to help save the Utopia, as most time-travel stories carry this sort of plot. Instead, Connie finds encouragement or, perhaps more aptly, inspiration to enter into a personal “war” against those whom she believes are going to destroy the last vestiges of herself. The “story” does not carry this novel. Half the novel is Connie accompanying Luciente in the future world, learning about it. Aside from a few minor events in that future, there is no plot or even linear storyline there either. This aspect didn’t bother me, as I tend to like novels that don’t have an A-Z story. This also is not a novel here to entertain you but to argue a point.
Connie is not very likable and I think this is intended. She is rather dull, both intellectually and personality-wise. She is generally very passive and a lot of her personal philosophies serve to reinforce the patriarchy that holds her down. She has also been beaten down by a racist and sexist society that treats her like crap and offers her no purchase in terms of righting her life. She is trapped in a spiral of poverty that is exacerbated (and, in some instances, created) by systematic oppression.
Yet, when she does act, she does so without fear. I think Connie is intended to represent women, as a society, in that decade. Other than the women in the institution, who are outliers, all the women in the modern era of the story are also passive and contribute to the same societal problems that hold them down (albeit in different ways). Connie has such trouble adjusting or accepting certain aspects of Mattapoisett, though, to give her credit, she is 37 in 1976, so she grew up in the 1950s. Most of the Utopian ideals to me were hardly far-fetched, though I’m sure in the 1970s they would have seemed bizarre or even laughable.
In truth, my only point of disbelief about the Utopia was that humans would get to that point in 150 years.
If the main character is kind of frustrating and the plot a little slow, what is fascinating about this novel is how it depicts the subtleties and nuances of the systematic oppression I mentioned above. Some of the things Connie says or thinks are just as frustrating as the way she is treated. You pity her as well as realize that she just doesn’t know what to do. She has no support system, no allies.
Unfortunately, the ending almost ruins what the book is trying to say. We’re never told whether Connie’s little trips forward in time are real or just a vivid hallucination. As such, if she is imagining the whole future Utopia, then her credibility on the other facets of her life is also put into question, which undermines a lot of the points about systematic racism and sexism that the novel is putting forth.
But, maybe that is the point. Maybe we’re supposed to believe Connie no matter what and, given we don’t, we’re part of the problem?
Woman on the Edge of the Time is an interesting novel that was likely provocative and rather mind-bending at the time, but its speculative aspects and narrative dissonance feel rather mundane today.
"Into the asylum that offered none, the broken-springed bus roughly galloped. Over the old buildings the rain blew in long gray ropey strange cascading down the brick walls. As she was beckoned out with rough speed, she was surprised to see gulls wheeling above, far inland, as over other refuse grounds. Little was recycled here. She was human garbage carried to the dump."