Book review: The Wailing Woman by Maria Lewis

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

If you’ve ever had a sneaking suspicion that more goes in this crazy, mixed-up world than meets the naked mortal eye, then has Australian author Maria Lewis got a tale (or five) to tell you.

A whole universe of them in fact with the fantasy author on the rise responsible for a series of interlinked books – – all of which stand alone quite happily but which have a shared sensibility, characters and a world in which supernatural beings, which run the gamut from werewolves to selkies, banshees to demons and witches, live just out of sight, or often cleverly disguised right in it, governed by an authority known as the Treize which like many governments of long standing (think centuries upon centuries in this case) has got a little too authoritarian for many beings’ liking.

In Who’s Afraid and Who’s Afraid Too, It Came From the Deep and The Witch Who Courted Death, Lewis, an avowed horror enthusiast who finds the world beyond a fascinating one to explore and in which to tell engrossing, enrapturing and magical (the real hard stuff: none of this fairy dust and giggley glitter stuff, thank you) stories, presently a gloriously diverse and refreshingly feminist view of the world where female characters are not cowering in fear or strapped to the rails waiting for a strong strapping man to save them but getting out there and saving themselves.

It’s invigorating urban fantasy storytelling because it continually dares to step beyond the normal parameters of fantasy and supernatural narratives to present us with characters who don’t fit the nice and neat whitebread, heteronormative structures of old.

This is fantastical tale weaving with the age-old prejudiced blinkers well and truly off, something that becomes immediately clear when you dive into her gripping, world-bestriding new novel, The Wailing Woman.

“If she thought she had seen a glimmer of excitement in his eyes, it was dashed as her shaking hand went straight to her throat. There was a choker there, one she always wore to hide the scar that swept from one side of her neck to the other. She felt the old injury burn beneath her skin as she heard the words of a boy, only three years older than her, pleasing with her to run. He was a man now.
‘Sadie Burke,’ said Texas Contos. ‘It has been a while.'” (P. 35)

The title refers to Banshees, a mystically old race of woman supernaturals who were once mighty and powerful, exercising great influence through Ireland, centred in Galway, and the UK where they held considerable sway, predicting death among a great many other gifts, until the Treize, fearful of the threat to their own governance, exiled them to Australia where a document known as The Covenant prevented them from ever leaving or assuming anything like their former standing.

As exiles go, it is a brutal one, not only robbing these once-dominant women of their previous high standing but condemning them to a life of poverty, eviscerating oversight by the Treize’s policing units, the Askari and the Praetorian Guard, and a near-total loss of identity.

It is cruel, dehumanising treatment and no one knows that better than 19-year-old Sadie Burke, the youngest of a family of seven fiery red-headed sisters, all of whom have some manifestations of the old powers, though their near-constant repression means they are effectively weak and powerless, something the Treize drums into them again and again.

But are they as weak as they have been led to believe?

Tex Cantos, a young Askari who is the son of the Burke sisters greatest oppressor, believes they are not and that they have within them the seeds of their once all-consuming greatness, just waiting to be released.

Most especially Sadie who possesses a truly unique that the Askari tried, quite cruelly, some years earlier to banish for good, but which may not be as permanently disposed of as everyone thought.

Maria Lewis (image courtesy official Maria Lewis Twitter account)

Tex has been in love with Sadie since they were kids and when he is assigned, for what turns out to be entirely dubious reasons, as the new Treize minder of the family, he sets about trying to right some wrongs, aided and abetted by Sadie who has had enough of being oppressed for one lifetime.

Their desire to seek out the truth, unleashes a fast and furious, and incredibly emotionally-resonant tale that spends much of its time in Lewis’s adopted hometown of Sydney, and particularly the Inner West centred around Newtown, where behind the doors of centuries-old terraces and hidden underneath the City Circle train stations, a whole world is beginning to unravel while another, long denied, begins to rise and assert itself.

As a Sydneysider, having a story set in places you don’t intimately and frequent often is a rare and immersive treat, one that Lewis executes beautifully, bringing the city to life in a way that honours and brings it forth as a character unto itself.

The Wailing Woman works because it uses its locations as far more than just geographical touchstones; thanks to their hidden supernatural denizens, many of whom have been in place for centuries, if not millennia, cities like Sydney, London and Galway pulse with an energy and vivacity than bring an already thrilling story even more dramatically alive.

They are key to the lives of characters like Tex and Sadie, Casper, Barastin and Kara (who you’ll remember from The Witch Who Courted Death) and Heath (from the Who’s Afraid? double) and entities unto themselves that possess a robust magicality and mythos upon which the characters and story draws quite powerfully.

“Sadie’s life hadn’t been perfect by any stretch. Some might say it was stifled by the things she couldn’t do, the rules that others dictated to her. But like converting a rundown shack into a home, she had made a life that was hers. It was constant and it was every day. Now, it felt like her grip was slippery as she tried to hold on to any sense of control she had.” (P. 227)

The brilliance of Lewis’s books, and especially The Wailing Woman, is the way she combines an edge-of-your-seat tale with vividly-realised characters, wry, clever dialogue, deftly-placed social commentary and a welcomingly progressive mindset to devastatingly good effect.

It is that magical and oft-elusive beast (quite literally, in fact, at times) – action-oriented storytelling with an affecting heart and a whip smart mind that dares to challenge not just our very limited view of the world but the role that people of diversity play in it.

It makes a compelling case for simply taking people on their merits, for dumping tired old ideas of sexuality, gender, power, spiritualism and a whole host of other lines of thoughts long past their use-by date, and for instituting a whole new way of thinking.

It’s theme explored within and without the narrative of The Wailing Woman, a brilliantly told story with aching sadness, thrilling boldness, dislocation, love and sense of coming home (and the maybe losing it all over again) and immeasurably captivating characters who end up unleashing the very revolution, or at least its nascent rumblings, they thought beyond them, changing many things, not least themselves, in the process.

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