Review: Megan Giddings' powerful new novel is a "Handmaid's Tale" for the post-Roe era

If “The Women Could Fly” were a kitchen, I would be in it, shadowing its author, Megan Giddings, watching her hands and responding to her instructions with, Yes, Chef! Her choices on the page — the salty and sweet moments, the acids on the plate — are fire. Sometimes, a literal fire, as when a witch is burned.

The great-great-great-grandaunt of protagonist Josephine was among those set ablaze; her burning took place on the beach. In the version of the story her descendants prefer to tell, “Our ancestress, when she couldn’t handle the fire any longer, flew off the pillar and plunged her scorched feet into the sea. The smoke and steam sifted and became a weeklong fog. It crashed ships, blanketed the town, made people who had tried to burn her afraid to leave their homes.”

Times have changed — but not really. Josephine’s present day, in which a totalitarian state surveils single women for signs of witchcraft, draws on our own in the same way that “The Handmaid’s Tale” extrapolated from the Reagan era: Not so much a prediction as a warning of where we are headed in a post-Roe vs. Wade America. Throw in some grown-up “Harry Potter” — except that in Giddings’ fantasia, magic is a myth that serves the patriarchy.

The Women Could Fly” is a soft boil of violences against women’s bodies, sure — but mostly a simmering of the mind. It is unrushed in building and deconstructing complex themes, revolving mainly around what it can mean to be a woman in patriarchal societies on the hunt for “devils” that could be you.

Giddings, whose previous novel “Lakewood,” her debut, concerned medical experimentation on women of color, here introduces us to bisexual Josephine, nickname Josie, who is expected to marry soon because marriage to a man is how society perfects women, vouches for their humanity.

And, because Black women are among those most likely to be witches, she will need a man soonest. If a woman doesn’t marry by the age of 30, she might be a witch, and Josie is 28. Not only is she staring down the barrel of this gun, but she is also in the sights of one she isn’t aware of.

“I should trust the government to have my best interests at heart,” she tells herself. “All I had to do is shut the f--- up, get married, try to be good,” and follow the system. A system that, like the one in recent seasons of “Westworld,” tells us who we are supposed to be and keeps us from questioning the nature of our reality; a system that gives us answers before we know we have questions.

Girls are monitored for signs of magical expression in high school, beginning at age 14, given quizzes to determine their likelihood of being a witch. Physical signs include “floating while sleeping,” “unconsciously repeating ourselves three times” and “wanting to teach others cruel lessons.” Another surefire sign: Answering yes to the question: “Have you ever felt as if you were possessed by a spirit of justice?”

In Giddings’ world, descended from our own, social justice is treated as a social poison. And those who dare to stand and hold the nation to its dazzling promises of equality are dismissed, gaslit and labeled whiners or want-to-be victims… no, witches.

As Josephine drives through Michigan, road signs read: “GOD SAVE US FROM BORTION, WITCHES, AND LIBERALS. (We laughed at the missing A.)” Flags on lawns come in a shade familiar to anyone in MAGA world: “Each kind of flag was an I-need-attention-red … someone finding some way to tell me how much they hate me.”

Here’s how enforcement works: An unmarried woman over 30 must register for government monitoring and, if proven to have magical powers, must give up public life, subject herself to electronic surveillance and restricted travel. Failing to register is tantamount to giving up rights to privacy, employment and more.

Most everyone in this society agrees this is right. There are some outliers: protesters, like Josie and her friends — especially her wise friend Angie — who once fought against state-sanctioned witch burnings, raised money and held teach-ins to include histories of queer, Black or Indigenous people who were convicted of being witches and burned.

Josie asks herself why she’s “letting cops yell at me and teargas me, nuns pray at me, counterprotestors throw things at me.” It’s because she knows something isn’t right. She knows because of memories of her mother and her ancestors, stories within stories passed down to her, eventually a rummage through a storage unit — and finally a phone call from her dad. He read to her from her mother’s last will and testament.

Josie’s mother, Tiana (“Ti”), had been gone for 14 years. There had been an investigation and a television show about her disappearance. All women who vanish are investigated for witchcraft, because the government always begins with the assumption that whatever happened to a woman was somehow her fault.

Josie’s dad and the government concluded with absolute certainty that Ti had died, but “dead” wasn’t something that sat well with Josie. But the reading of Ti’s last wishes sets Josie on a journey to learn her mother’s history, to encounter the fantastic, to discover herself and her own power — and to fight. This will be her salvation.

Giddings has an incredible handle on the American family, on religious nationalism and how it impacts everyone. She writes with wisdom, grace and a skilled hand; her work is seamless on the page, especially on matters involving identity and all manners of diversity, which in lesser hands could feel didactic.

That’s also due in part to the depth of her characters; they are not archetypes but real people in unreal circumstances. Baked into Josie’s unforgettable hookups with would-be husband Preston (a.k.a. “Party City”) is the secret sauce of any successful relationship: trust, straightforward expectations, presence of mind, the thrill of satisfaction. For Josie, this is a perfect substitute for performative romance, including marriage. (And for her mother, the performance of being a doting parent.)

The arcs Giddings draws over Josie’s core relationships — with Preston, with Angie, with her parents — shimmer with intelligence and humanity, and they determine her fate.

If this all feels like raw material for a binge-worthy television show, it is not because this novel needs adapting but because it feels flexible, transcending familiar forms. And yet it succeeds exquisitely as what it is. Like a woman without a partner, Giddings’ second novel is already complete.

Deón is a criminal defense attorney, college professor and most recently the author of novel “The Perishing.” She lives in Los Angeles.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.