The Women Could Fly is un unsettling novel set in a dystopian world where magic is real - so naturally, it’s treated as fearsome & unholy and used to oppress & control women, especially queer women of color.
We follow Jo, an almost-28-year-old woman who is questioning her place in the world and her ability to live freely. Her age is pretty crucial; women are mandated to marry by the time they are 30 or submit to constant monitoring by the Bureau of Witchcraft. But how can you fall in love with this pressure of freedom? How can you be sure that your relationship is real? How is it possible to care for someone who ultimately has full power over you - and not let that care turn into toxicity or resentment?
Jo doesn’t want to give up her life, but the odds are stacked against her: her mother is absent, she’s bisexual, she’s Black, and she expresses her opinions (with wit!).
Jo’s mother disappeared fourteen years ago. She’s struggling with the grief of that loss, an uncomfortably distanced relationship with her (white) father, and anger with her mother both for leaving her alone and for subjecting her to the whims of the government. When women - especially women of color - disappear, that’s flagged as possible witchcraft. And after her mother’s disappearance, Jo (as a young Black woman) is now constantly treated with suspicion due to her proximity to a “likely witch”.
But now, Jo is agonizingly ready to move forward. When she decides to declare her mother as legally dead, she uncovers a will with a promising amount of money – she just has to take an unusual trip with some even more unusual stipulations in order to claim her inheritance.
In this world, any sort of female autonomy is an act of defiance. Jo is seeking agency that the world believes is inherently dangerous (and that she simply doesn’t deserve). The oppressors in this book speak with rage-inducing racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. rhetoric that will unfortunately feel deeply familiar. It’s the same nonsense that those in power always utilize to stay in control. So while the speculative elements of the story are heightened and imaginative, it feels VERY real. (An interesting aspect of the novel is that Jo’s mother believes that witches aren’t real; that magic is simply a useful tool to oppress anyone who threatens the current way of life.)
The story is slow-paced, and Giddings’ worldbuilding feels a bit purposefully vague. You’ll read a lot of contradictions (maybe intentional and maybe not); it “makes sense” because it is inherently nonsensical, but don’t expect to have a clear picture of this culture. The sequence of events is also very choppy at times. The Women Could Fly interrogates a lot of topics, and encourages you - the reader - to engage thoughtfully with the questions it poses.
Let me be very clear - this book may not be for you. I adored Giddings’ first book, Lakewood, and if you did as well you’ll have a better idea of what to expect here. The content is incredibly rich, but it is slow and confusing. If you’re someone who enjoys reading in book clubs or discussing media with others (especially involving social commentary) this would be a perfect choice.
People fear what they don’t understand. They are especially afraid when something new may threaten their power; they have a desperate need for control. The Women Could Fly explores this conflict in a new & interesting way.
Ultimately, I found this book captivating & challenging & upsettingly prescient.
CW: racism, misogyny, sexism, homophobia/biphobia, abandonment, forced institutionalization, grief, suicidal thoughts, police brutality, death of a parent, vomit, animal blood/gore, animal death
Graphic: Drug use, Grief, Biphobia, Blood, Violence, Vomit, Death of parent, Forced institutionalization, Misogyny, Suicidal thoughts, Abandonment, Medical content, Religious bigotry, Toxic relationship, Animal death, Confinement, Racism, Sexism, Cursing, Homophobia, and Injury/injury detail