Nov 26, 2008

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

Maggie Black, a poet and journalist, inherits a house in the mountains near Tucson from fellow poet David Cooper. Though they had corresponded for years, they had never met in person, and Maggie is as surprised that he left her his house as she is by the circumstances of his death: David Cooper is found drowned on a river bed that has been dried for years.

Maggie goes to the desert with the intention of writing Cooper’s biography. She didn’t have his permission while he was alive, but she realizes that the fact that he left her his house and everything within it is his way of giving her his okay once he’s gone. While going through his papers, and talking to those who knew him, she begins to realize that the beings Cooper wrote about in his collection of poems The Wood Wife, and that his lover Anna Naverra painted, may not be strictly imaginary. And meanwhile, the desert, a land she never thought she’d love, begins to enter her bones.

The Wood Wife is a wonderful novel about poetry and painting and art in general, about mythology and folklore, about loneliness and friendship and love, and above all about land, our relationship with it, how it shapes who we are.

Whenever I travel, I find myself paying attention to the relationship between landscape and stories. And I say when I travel not because this is not the case in my homeland, but because sometimes it’s hard to truly see what’s been around us our whole lives. In places that are new to me, though, I always see how geography has shaped stories, myths, folklore. One of my favourite things about The Wood Wife was the way it explores the relationship between landscape and art. What Cooper wrote about, what Anna Naverra painted, was both universal and very specific: a product of those mountains, that desert, their wildlife. And of course, a product of their lore. And you know, I never thought I’d want to visit the desert, but reading this book made me want to. Every landscape gives rise to its kind of stories. Every landscape has its kind of beauty.

I also loved all the art references: to Borges and Pablo Neruda, to Brian Froud, to Henry Miller and Ana├»s Nin, with whom Cooper corresponded. Most of all I loved that they weren’t just thrown in – they’re in the story because they belong in the story, because The Wood Wife is very much about art and creativity. But not at all in an inaccessible or insular way.

Finally, I loved how the novel uses Native American folklore, particularly Coyote stories, with a bit of English folklore thrown in. Again, these stories are explored in both their universality and their specificity, which is the specificity of the landscape where they belong. I loved all the animals in the story too: coyotes, of course, but also owls, stags, bobcats, and the adorable Thumber, about whom I read with Terri Windling’s lovely art in mind.

And because coyotes are cool, I leave you with a link: The Daily Coyote.

Other Opinions:
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Stainless Steel Droppings
Here, There and Everywhere
Orpheus Sings the Guitar Electric
A Fondness for Reading
somewhere i have never travelled

(Let me know if I missed yours!)


  1. So glad you enjoyed this Nymeth - it's on my list of possible re-reads for next year, and I'm lucky enough to have an edition with a wonderful Brian Froud cover.

  2. I live in south Florida, and as I drive I catch myself wondering about the narratives that come out of this hot, sandy place. Unfortunately, the few I'm familiar with (Dave Barry, Carl Hiaasen) are less than subtle with their treatment of the locale, so much so it feels cliche to me.

  3. I always know I'll find an interesting and unique books reviwed at your blog nymeth.
    And you make them all sound worth reading.
    This one does sound good, great review :)

    It is true, that its hard to see what has always been around us, almost like we take it for granted.

  4. glad that you finally got to read this and enjoyed it! When I read outside of "my comfort zone" it's such a pleasure when it pleases me! This one did that. Good book.. good read.

  5. this one sounds really interesting.. firstly, i like the name of the book and i love the fact that it references native american folklore..:) thanks!

  6. I swear I thought you read this one already! It was one of my favorite books of the year. I felt the same way as you...I loved the sense of closeness with the land and I really want to go back to the desert now. I went to New Mexico a few years ago and it was beautiful...this one brought it all back!

  7. Another one that I'd pop into my wish list. It seems that I'm popping every book in your review into my WL. And that's because I think I'd definitely enjoy your recommendation. Heheee...

  8. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth! I've placed this book on my wishlist at BookMooch after reading a few good reviews about it but so far, no good news yet! ;) I'll have to add it to my to-buy list after reading yours!

  9. I love Terri Windling. I'm almost positive that I haven't read this but it does sound really familiar... Maybe she's written something similar in one of her short stories?

  10. I'm glad you enjoyed this as much as I did. It was beautifully descriptive and a great combination of different art forms. I love her anthologies and it's great to read some of her own writing as well.

  11. Sounds amazing. I've only been to the desert once - I visited Santa Fe years ago - and I was always struck by how the art seems to be linked to the landscape. There were so many art galleries there, and I'm constantly reminded of the desert by artwork that I see. Great review - I'll definitely have to keep an eye out for it. :)

  12. strange - I almost ordered this book today! We don't carry this title at the store I work, and I was thinking of bringing it in. And now I've read your review, I think I'll definitely be ordering this for the store!

  13. Amazingly, I picked this one up in charity shop only a month or so ago. I grabbed it because I seemed to recall a lot of people reading it for Carl's Once Upon a Time challenge back in the Spring. Can't wait to read it now, after your excellent review.

  14. I picked up a copy of this book earlier this year, but I never did get around to reading it. Sheesh. I wish there were more hours in a day!!

    Nice always!

  15. It seems that you're reading off the list of books that I most regret not getting to this year. This is another one of those!

  16. I swear, you always choose the best books to read! Bad for my wishlist! Hahaha!

    I've yet to find this in my favorite bookstore or maybe I've yet to look that hard. I've seen the books edited (if I'm not mistaken) by Terri Windling though so maybe I should search that section further :P

  17. I'm glad you enjoyed it, too!

  18. BrideoftheBookGod: Even though I really like this cover, that sounds wonderful!

    Loren: That's too bad. What about the local folklore?

    Naida, thank you :) And yes, we all do that sometimes.

    Deslily: It's always great when that happens!

    Ramya: I hope you enjoy it if you do decide to read it. And yes, the title is great, isn't it?

    Chris: I really don't know what took me so long :P And yes, the way that sense of closeness with the land was portrayed was just beautiful. I've never been anywhere near a desert, but I do want to visit Mexico someday. I'll have to make sure I visit the right regions there.

    Alice: I hope you do enjoy them and don't end up hating me for making you get a bunch of books you hate :P But I really do think you'd enjoy this!

    Melody: BookMooch takes a lot of patience, but often I end up mooching books I never thought I'd ever get!

    Ladytink: I remember reading that this story started out as a novella, so maybe you've read that?

  19. Rhinoa: Yes, it was great to finally read some of her fiction. I love her anthologies and her essays on myths and fairy tales, but I also wish she'd write more novels!

    Jessi: I really think you'll enjoy this book :) And I love that feeling of looking at art from a place and seeing how it mirrors the land.

    Marineko: Do! You'll enjoy it for sure :)

    Cath: Yes, a lot of people read it for the challenge. I wanted to as well, but somehow I didn't get to it then. Fortunately it's never too late! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    Stephanie: I know the feeling! And thank you :)

    Joanna: There's always next year!

    Lightheaded: I could tell you the same :P Her anthologies seem easier to find that this novel, but hopefully you'll be able to grab a copy.

    Robin: I really did :)

  20. This sounds absolutely lovely!

  21. I just put this on my to-buy list, and I can't find it! and now that I've read your lovely, lovely review, I am desperate to get my hands on this! It sounds perfect, landscape and art and creativity mixing in and working on each other. *sighs longingly*

  22. Mariel, it's one I'm sure you'll like :)

    Susan: I'm glad that's been solved now :D

  23. I'm so glad that you enjoyed this book. It was one of my favorite reads this year and I was really surprised by how much I got lost in it.

  24. OK, I read it, and I *loved* it. It totally made me want to move to the desert. And Thumper... oh, I cried. Loved it.


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