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Fiction Review: The Singing of Swans

book cover, The Singing of Swans

The Singing of Swans
Mary Saracino
Pearlsong Press (October 2006)

There is a lake, of waters clear and deep
Not far from the walls of Enna, called Pergus.
Even Cayster never heard
Such singing of swans, so many have nested here;
With dark branches, a wood gives shade,
Encircling the lake as though to defend it;
Here flowers always bloom, winter never falls,
Here eternal spring smiles.

These words from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" grace the second page of The Singing of Swans, Mary Saracino's lovely novel of a thoroughly modern woman, Madalene Ross, who has no time for either thoughts of eternal smiles or a singing of swans. The first page holds a dedication to "…the Dark Mother, humankind's first deity, our most ancient memory." It is Madalene's reluctant encounter with the Dark Mother and how She leads to that special place where one can hear the singing of swans that form the crux of this story.

Saracino deftly takes the reader between times and weaves the stories of several women tied together in a line that calls to Madalene, though she fights the call, certain that she must, quite simply, be going bonkers.

Madalene, also known as Maddie, is frightened by and tries to avoid a mysterious bag lady who keeps stopping her on the street and asking her if she has a match. Maddie is also having strange dreams she doesn't understand or want. Dreams "…full of women who said and did strange, unpredictable things: women of magic who flew through the air, walked through walls, and defied the laws of nature in countless ways. Women who concocted liniments and teas from strange and unusual plants. Women who chanted weird songs and cradled terra cotta statues in their hands; women who screamed in stonewalled courtyards in a countryside of rolling hills and fields filled with wild, red poppies — a landscape Madalene did not recognize."

As a "sensible" workaholic with no social life, she dismisses the dreams as "something she ate" until the bag lady accosts her one too many times and says, "My daughter, do not be concerned with all that you are seeing with your dream eyes. They are coming for you. Your sisters are returning. Your Mother wants to talk to you. Listen and you will know what to do." Maddie has no intention of listening — to the crazy old woman or her dreams. But fate steps in and Maddie embarks on an unexpected journey to Sicily, carrying with her a small statue of a dark Madonna that was hidden away in her family's mementos. While there, Madalene discovers many things about the place, the people and herself.

This is not just the story of Madalene Ross, however. The author does a wonderful job of painting a complete picture of the women who are Madalene's "sisters." We come to learn of each of the characters: their lives, thoughts, joys, fears and pain as if we're right there with them, though they and Maddie are separated by time.

Saracino also manages to convey a message that resonates for us in the real present without the unwelcome preachiness that a less talented author might fall into. This is one of those rare, lovely works of fiction that touches on past injustices, ecology, healing and women's spirituality, while managing to keep the reader engaged and entertained throughout.

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