Mary Saracino's latest novel is a journey that spans thousands of years, from the time when the Dark Mother - the Divine Feminine - held sway over the people, to the days when the Catholics persecuted anyone who didn't convert, to modern times, where religion takes a backseat to corporate greed. During all these periods, the women in The Singing of Swans struggle to stay true to their spiritual selves.
Madalene Ross's life revolves around her computer terminal and a cup of Starbucks coffee. Emotionally bereft, she tries to keep herself grounded in reality and certainty. However, every night, she is haunted by dreams of unknown women and their strange pagan world, which juxtaposes the Catholic Madonna with the Black Mother, the true god. During the day, Madalene is harassed by a bizarre homeless woman who keeps talking nonsense about a lake and someone named Ziza. Madalene doesn't know it yet, but these dreams and this woman are calling her to her ancient roots.
Meanwhile, the stories unfold about Ziza and her mother, Ibla and her mother, and Rosalina, all strega - born of special powers - who spend their lives fighting political and religious oppression. All of these women live in various time periods, but their lives revolve around Lake Pergusa in central Sicily and the caves surrounding the lake where the women gather to celebrate their monthly cycles. These are the women who appear in Madalene's dreams each night.
Through a series of events, Madalene discovers that her ancestors came from an area around Lake Pergusa and begins to tie her own history to her odd dreams and to the homeless woman. She finds herself taking a journey to Sicily, an adventure that culminates in her spiritual awakening and total transformation.
The Singing of Swans is a well-researched novel, delving deeply into mythology and both pagan and Catholic beliefs and practices, as well as the history and culture of Lake Pergusa and the surrounding area. It's also an engrossing tale. The stories of Ziza, Ibla and Rosalina are especially well done, and the details of their everyday lives and rituals seem authentic.
The weakness in this novel is the storyline with Madalene. She isn't a particularly likeable character, and the dialogue between her and the other characters doesn't ring true. The writing in these sections of the novel is also not as strong as in the other stories. Although I knew that the plot was building up to Madalene's life-changing epiphany at the end, I didn't like her character enough to care. And when the epiphany finally did occur, it seemed too far-fetched - her total transformation happened too quickly and easily.
Despite its weaknesses, The Singing of Swans is a fascinating read. Rich in historical detail, this novel will keep you turning the pages.