The Wood Wife by Terri Windling
Then, her mentor dies mysteriously — drowned in a dry creekbed — and inexplicably leaves her his house in the Southwestern desert. She moves there, hoping to research a biography of him. At first, Maggie doesn’t like the desert; it seems sterile, forbidding, devoid of charm. Then one night a pooka cuddles up to her in bed, and nothing is the same after that…
Maggie soon discovers a world of magic in the desert (and we, the readers, discover it right along with her), and digs up some fascinating secrets about her mentor’s life. And suddenly, all the pieces come together.
Both a mystery and a fantasy, The Wood Wife (1996) is gorgeously written and a good read. As a writer, I was especially moved by the discussions of whether or not Maggie was still a poet. Well done.
I’m so glad The Wood Wife has been re-released as part of the Tor Essentials line. Terri Windling’s tale of poet Maggie Black and her process of gradually falling in love with the desert outside Tucson while fulfilling her duties as the executor of her late mentor’s estate is beautifully written, and the friendships Maggie forms among the people who were drawn to Davis Cooper’s orbit are as compelling and intriguing as the mystery of how Cooper managed to drown in a dry wash bed.
The Wood Wife is filled with artists, musicians, poets, animals who can shed their skins to walk amongst humans (and vice-versa), and the echoes of choices made back when a person could count Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin amongst their contemporaries. It’s a quiet, intimate novel in which adults grapple with the creative spark, dance to raucous music, go for long walks through dust-strewn canyons, argue and bargain with supernatural creatures, and try to find themselves in words and pebbles. It’s also a novel of big ideas, examining the artist’s role as creator and the ramifications of the creative act, asking if a poet who doesn’t write is still a poet, wondering if an unhappy search for greatness is better than comfort and stability. Windling doesn’t provide easy answers to the questions she asks of her characters and the reader, either.
I enjoyed this novel immensely, and not just because I, like Maggie, have used the act of digging through a box of cassette tapes as a means by which to get to know prospective friends better. Maggie’s journey resonated with me, as it did with Kelly, and her experiences in the Sonoran Desert are credibly life-changing no matter how strange it would be to wake up with a rabbit-eared woman curled up at the foot of one’s bed, to use one example. Highly recommended.