Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (1979)
Review by Jack Deighton
After her boyfriend died, Consuelo Ramos descended into grief and alcoholism. As a result of the consequent neglect of her daughter (whom she also injured) she was placed in a mental hospital and her daughter put out for adoption.
Years after her release, she attempts to protect her niece, Dolly, by smashing Dolly’s pimp’s nose with a bottle. His heavies subdue her and she is taken back to the mental hospital rather than to casualty. Her protestations of sanity are ignored.
In the run-up to this incident she had been conversing on and off with Luciente, a time traveling visitor from Matapoisett, a society in the future (or a contingent future.) Once in the hospital she becomes able to travel in the opposite direction and welcomes immersion in this accepting society. In Matapoisett gender is hard to discern and no distinction is made at the level of language; “person” stands in for “he” or “she” and “per” for “him” or “her.” It is a utopia where the population is stable and children cared for by the many. Needs are met on a non-exploitative basis but not denied, resources are husbanded, decisions made in a grand council. Everyone has to spend some time in defence, though, as Matapoisett is at war (against whom and over what is never adequately made clear.)
Most chapters begin and end in the hospital, book-ending episodes in Matapoisett. The travails of mental patients caught in the catch-22 of either accepting treatment or otherwise effectively proving their illness, are exceedingly well conveyed.
At one point Connie escapes incarceration and manages to evade recapture for a few days. Here she exploits Luciente’s knowledge of flora to partially alleviate her sores and bruises. This is the only indication in the book that Connie’s experiences of Matapoisett may be anything other than figments of her imagination. Though written in the third person the viewpoint is hers throughout. Apart from the novel’s title this is the only indicator that her story as presented might be “true” and the narration reliable. Even with that, as neither of the futures are particularly convincing, the simplest interpretation is still that she is in fact mad and her visits to Matapoisett are hallucinations.
Connie is chosen, among others, for an experimental course of treatment involving brain surgery and radio controlled implants. Along with the experimenters, all the staff at the hospital are depicted as cold and uncaring, treating the inmates as subjects, little better than animals.
Despite Connie’s incomprehension of some of the customs in Matapoisett her sojourns there stand in contrast to the inhumanity she is subjected to in her own time. After the surgery she (once) travels forward to a different future, a dystopia where life is harsher and more sexist and which may be the one at war with Matapoisett. After another inmate who has had the treatment commits suicide Connie’s implants are removed and she is able to contact Matapoisett again. Her experiences lead her to a course of action which I shall not spoil here.
Extracts of Connie’s case history are provided at the conclusion where her diagnosis of schizophrenia is revealed.
Woman on the Edge of Time has been interpreted as Science Fiction (not least on the back cover where Connie is described as “heroically sane”) but I must say I find that reading odd. Too much of the incidental detail militates against it. As a study of madness, though, and of a mind utterly convinced of its own rectitude it is admirable.
This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.