Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marge Piercy, is a science fiction novel first published in 1976. I read it as a buddy read with Melanie at Grab the Lapels. It follows Connie Ramos, a woman in her late thirties who is institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital against her will. During the course of the novel, depending on your interpretation, she either actually time-travels to a utopian future, or has very vivid hallucinations about doing so. This is the type of novel which is quite difficult to review without discussing the progress of Connie’s illness, her character development etc. Although I will avoid spoiling the concrete details of the plot, stop reading now if you want to avoid all knowledge about how the book unfolds. Please note that the review, like the book, contains discussion of violence against children.
The novel opens grimly, with Connie’s niece Dolly showing up at her flat fleeing from her abusive pimp. (Abusive pimp – there’s a tautology for you). Honestly, that sets the tone for most of the book. After she defends herself and Dolly forcefully against Geraldo, Connie is taken to a psychiatric institution. We find out pretty quickly that this is at least her second stay, and that she is considered a violent patient. Connie and her fellow patients are treated badly by the staff, and subjected to brutal forced experimentation. This is truth in fiction, though I think the novel is set just a bit too late – by the late 70s, it’s my understanding that we were stumbling towards better research ethics, including the importance of being able to obtain free informed consent from participants, and the complex power dynamics that make this harder with people who are imprisoned or held against their will. Set ten years earlier, there would be no denying the accuracy of the depiction. This kind of deeply unethical “research” did occur for decades – longer – and people with mental health problems were particularly at risk. It’s tough to read but realistic. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Connie, who has troubled recently by visions of a person called Luciente, suddenly finds herself much more open to the idea of travelling to the future once her present has become so bleak.
The future timeline is, in many respects, precisely what a progressive activist in the mid-70s would view as a utopia. Although people are still biologically men or women, society as a whole is largely non-gendered (with the use of “person” rather than “he” or “she”, and “per” instead of “his” or “her”). People raise their children very communally; they each live alone but then spend a lot of time in community spaces; they smoke a lot of weed; they don’t send children off for oppressive education but instead raise them amidst Nature, Our Great Teacher; cities have been abandoned, etc etc. Basically, the future is a giant hippie commune. This is where the book felt most dated to me – it feels just like so much other 50s-70s science fiction, and doesn’t particularly add anything. I think this is because the utopia is a bit overstuffed – Piercy would have been better off picking one or two ideas and developing those more fully, rather than trying to stick everything in there – but it’s still interesting. It’s never completely clear whether Connie is actually travelling to the future, or if this is just a representation of her deteriorating mental health. I went back and forth on that during the course of the novel, and while I’ve come to a conclusion, I won’t share it – my reasons for thinking it are all spoilers! In a sense, it doesn’t matter, but it does affect how the reader views some aspects of the book, especially the final scenes. If it’s a hallucination, then it’s more interesting, as the characters in the future really challenge Connie’s understanding of the world and her place in it. She argues with them a great deal, and I suspect this might be her brain’s way of trying to process what’s happening to her in her real timeline. On the other hand, if it’s actually time travel, that increases the stakes substantially – so there are pros and cons for each interpretation.
The most difficult aspect of the book for me was Connie’s relationship with her young daughter, Angelina. We learn fairly early on that Angelina was removed from Connie’s care when she was four, and adopted by a white family. Connie ruminates on this almost constantly, viewing herself as a victim who has been punished for a single mistake – hitting her daughter once while she was beside herself with grief. She believes her daughter was taken away because she is Latina and on welfare. However, as the novel unfolds, we get more and more information drip-fed to us, until a very different picture emerges. Like I said, I’ll avoid details, but Angelina had been through A Lot at Connie’s hands by the time she was removed. Angelina herself is entirely absent from the novel. To the best of my memory, I don’t think she has a single line, even in flashbacks. Connie wants her back to meet her overpowering desire to be a mother – she is uninterested in Angelina’s needs, and Angelina doesn’t really seem like a person but rather an adjunct of whichever adult has “got” her. Connie’s attitude towards children throughout the whole book was troubling: she seems to view children as existing to meet adults’ needs – to breastfeed, to be parents, to love and be loved – rather than considering them as people in their own right, with needs and preferences of their own. Throughout the novel, Connie persistently prioritises the needs of adults over the needs of children, and is willing for children to be put in danger in order to meet those needs. For example, she tells Dolly to get back her daughter, Nita, who is being cared for by extended family – not because Nita is being badly looked after, or even because it’s best for her to be with her mum, but because Dolly is becoming reliant on amphetamines and getting involved with violent men. Connie thinks Dolly is likely to look after herself better with Nita around. Nita’s needs, like Angelina’s, are completely ignored by the narrative.
This is the perfect example of when reading a book with someone changed my perspective – I really enjoyed my conversation with Melanie and discussing this book with her improved my reading experience. As I was reading, I was frustrated with what I perceived as the author wanting me to agree with Connie. The problem is, she is incredibly well-written. I have met a few Connies. I’ve looked after their kids when they come into hospital with burns or fractures or bruises that can’t be explained away. She’s very plausible, she genuinely believes herself to be a victim, she’s grieved over the pain that her daughter is in; she’s also completely incapable of insight into the fact that she has caused that pain – not in a single moment of weakness, but in dozens or hundreds of decisions over a period of years. Connies are always likable right up until you see their kids’ x-rays. And it is absolutely true that Connie is a victim of a society that has treated her cruelly. Her life has been a tragedy, a series of large and small losses – a partner, a husband, a job, a degree. At one point, Connie muses that she hurt her daughter because she saw herself in her – which is a believable and rare bit of self-awareness from her – but the fact that she is abusing her daughter from a place of great personal grief doesn’t somehow make it okay that she’s doing it. As I was reading, I felt like the author thought Connie was in the right, that she’d just had a bad run of luck. The tension between what I was picking up through my professional lens and what I thought I was meant to be taking away from the novel sat badly with me. Through my discussion with Melanie I changed my mind. I’ve come around to thinking that Connie was much more intentionally written, and that makes this a masterful piece of work in my mind. That said, when reading the reviews on Goodreads, people mostly seem to be on Connie’s side and feel her behaviour was appropriate – so given that it took two of us to piece it together, maybe it was a bit too subtle.
This is a novel that won’t be for everyone because the content is so brutal. That said, I think if you can stomach it, this is really worth reading. Even though it feels dated in places, Connie is a very well-drawn character and I found the writing compelling. I’ll be reading more of Marge Piercy, I think – though I’m definitely switching to something lighter for my next book!