Fiction Review: The Singing of Swans
The Singing of Swans
There is a lake, of waters clear and
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 "
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.
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.