The cover of Christine Eber’s debut novel tells a tale in itself. A young woman, beautiful and strong, gazes unflinchingly at the onlooker (us). She is dressed in traditional indigenous clothes, but three strands of hair blow loose as if to tell us this woman cannot be tamed; her spirit will run free forever. Behind her the mountains loom, but just like the landscape in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, they don’t dominate her. The fact is: she’s indomitable.
It’s an image of pride and fortitude, perfect for this beautifully-written story-within-a-story.
When a Woman Rises is everything modern life isn’t. It reveals itself slowly, depicting the old ways while acknowledging the new, and it doesn’t have a cell phone or a laptop in sight. The tale, simply and gently told, moves inevitably and without histrionics towards a tragic finale.
The novel is set in a poor Mayan community in Chiapas, Mexico, where Magdalena, the heroine and narrator, ekes out a humble living with her family. When Magdalena’s daughter asks her to talk about her past for an educational project, Magdalena instead tells the story of her best friend, Lucia.
Lucia was Magdalena’s childhood soulmate. But as time passed, Lucia’s calling as a healer and her growing political awareness meant she would take a different path from Magdalena. Their dream of becoming teachers fell apart, and Lucia instead became a Zapatista leader. Eventually, Lucia disappeared altogether, although her life force is what gives the novel its narrative energy and her disappearance its central mystery.
The theme of tradition versus modernity permeates the novel. The community is deeply embedded in its old ways: boys must visit family homes to ask to marry daughters; girls are to run the household rather than further their education; homosexuality is taboo. The enclosed nature of the community reminded me of another fictional community grappling with modernity: Chinua Achebe’s Umuofia in Things Fall Apart, one of the masterpieces of African literature.
Achebe’s work is steeped in Igbo culture. Eber’s When a Woman Rises is similarly threaded through with Mayan words, idioms, and customs. These are seamlessly woven into the narrative by the author, an anthropologist who spent a year living in a Mayan community. The references to the Zapatistas and to the struggles of the poor have a ring of authenticity gained through close observation.
Fittingly, the title of this excellent novel honors women. Women are seen emancipating themselves, taking control of their destinies, and battling the patriarchy. The men are generally useless, backward, or invisible. The full saying from which the novel takes its title is: “when a woman rises, no man is left behind.” That women can only rise so far in this and many other communities is one of the conundrums we still need to solve.