Here’s the theory. Once women were revered for their miraculous ability to bear children. This miracle was associated with the moon’s phases, the tides, and the fertility of the earth. Men worshipped the Mother Goddess. Life was good for women, who enjoyed their bodies and their sexuality, and everyone lived in harmony. Then men became aware of a father’s role in creating babies, and decided that, in order to control their progeny, they must control women. Women became subject to man’s rule; female sexuality became taboo; the loving goddess was forgotten, and the harmony of earlier days was shattered forever.
Now, this version of events may not be true. The theme of Inventing Memory by Anne Harris is that it doesn’t really matter whether the theory is true. What matters is that the theory is beautiful, and reflects the way the world should be, even if it isn’t and never really was. I don’t happen to agree with that statement, but I have to say it’s a thought-provoking idea.
The first third of the book tells the story of Shula, a slave girl in ancient Sumeria. We are immediately told that we’re in a period of history not long after the patriarchy supplanted the matriarchy. A character says that, within her grandmother’s memory, women were treated differently. Shula, as a female slave, exists at the lowest rung of society. She does not even consider objecting to her sexual victimization by the son of her owner – she is powerless and she knows it. Shula comes to the notice of the goddess Inanna, and is taken in as one of Inanna’s priestesses. Inanna is capricious and cruel, but Shula also learns of a kinder, older goddess with black wings.
Abruptly, the story changes setting, and we are immersed in the story of Wendy Chrenko, a girl growing up in modern-day America. We follow Wendy from middle school through high school, college, and graduate school. She is a passionate idealist who longs for a world in which men and women live in equality. She researches ancient Sumeria and she, like Shula, discovers the black-winged goddess, who suggests that there was once a harmonious matriarchal society. Along with some amazingly computer-savvy friends, she participates in a virtual reality experiment that will, basically, transport her back to Shula’s Sumeria, where she hopes to learn the truth about the goddess.
Inventing Memory does not fit into any existing genre. I would call it speculative fiction, based in large part on the epic of Gilgamesh, with a strong feminist message. It’s very uneven book. Parts of it are well-researched and written beautifully, but tend to be slow. Other parts seem heavy-handed and preachy.
The sections that take place in ancient Sumeria are well-evoked and interesting. Harris does a very good job bringing the extremely foreign setting to life, including its cyclical time. I particularly like Shula’s matter-of-fact reaction to the amazing things that keep happening. It’s not a surprise to her that snakes can talk; it’s only surprising that they would bother to talk to her. However, these sections are rather dry; the seemingly-random way things happen is confusing and tiring.
The modern-day sections are jarringly different from the Sumerian sections. The political slant is much, much more overt in those sections, as Wendy deals with sexism at school, at work, and in college politics. These sections are exasperating and I found them emotionally manipulative: see Wendy suffer at the hands of teenage bullies! See her friend Ray cope with his abusive father and passive mother! It’s not that I disagree that this sexism exists, it’s just that I don’t need to see it illustrated over and over and over. For instance, I see no reason why we had to start with Wendy in the eighth grade and follow her all the way through college; a simple flashback would have been plenty to let us know that she had a hard time as a teenager. I’m already quite familiar with the traumas that middle-school culture deals to young women. After all, I live in this world, too.
It’s also strange how contemptuous the author is in her portrayal of Wendy’s feminist friends. A more stereotypical bunch of snotty candle-burning man-haters you’ve never met. If the author really wants a world where everyone is treated fairly, regardless of sex, why not give the characters who supposedly agree with her a little more depth? Is Wendy the only nice, thoughtful feminist in the world?
The way Shula and Wendy turn out to be linked is quite clever. But the last chapters are even more wandering and bewildering than the previous ones, and by the end I was somewhat relieved it was over.
I’m not a goddess-worshipper, although I respect my friends who are. I certainly feel that men and women should be able to live with one another in greater peace than they do now. Any book that gets people thinking about gender roles is okay by me. But this exploration of mythic themes is too confused and ham-fisted to make a satisfying novel. I kind of wish the author had just written a historical about the ancient world, without turning that fascinating setting into a donkey to pull her wagon. Still, the book is thought-provoking, and the parts set in Sumeria are for the most part really well done. If you’re in the mood for something quite different, you might want to check it out.