The announcement of a new novel from the pen of Sue Monk Kidd is always greeted by the anticipated delight of her readers, especially those who have followed her progression from memoirist to novelist. Kidd shared her desire to switch from non-fiction to fiction in her spiritual memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, an account of her personal journey from dutiful daughter and acquiescent wife to self-empowered, spiritually-awakened woman. Through the pages of that book, Kidd took her readers on a transformative spiritual odyssey, spanning the terrain of her initial awakening when she first glimpsed the possibilities of living beyond the circumscribed limitations of patriarchal religion, to her heady journey and ultimate grounding in a feminine spiritual consciousness, discovered for the first time when she encountered the Goddess, and finally culminating in the reclamation of her own unique vision and voice. In the midst of recounting her voyage through the underworld of her psyche, Kidd articulated her deep-seated desire and dream to write fiction. I waited with increasing suspense for the publication of her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. I wasn't disappointed. Nor was I disappointed when she published her subsequent novel, The Mermaid Chair, even if it did lack some of the verve and assurance displayed by the author in her debut novel. Hence I was more than curious when I learned that she was writing a new book, published at the beginning of this year.
The Invention of Wings is similar in theme to her previous novels. Kidd's oeuvre is, characteristically, spiritually oriented, with a particular emphasis on the metamorphosis of women. This is her focus, the lens through which she looks upon the world. Central to her theme of spiritual transformation is the importance of the bonds of sisterhood, women supporting women, encouraging, witnessing, companioning one another as they move into new ways of enlightened be-ing. This is never easy for her female characters, who start out as quiet, thoughtful girls or women who are not actively seeking to be different. Yet in each novel the principle protagonist finds herself driven by forces, both internal and external, recognitions and emerging desires, which push her beyond the safety of the status quo, until she eventually realises there is no turning back.
The Invention of Wings is no different in theme from her earlier novels. To paraphrase the poet Mary Oliver in The Journey, here, too, the main protagonist does the only thing she can do. Stirred by her conscience and her desire to live a fully authentic life, she followed the promptings of her heart, choosing to trust her inner voice. In doing so, she effectively closed many doors to herself . literally, in her own home town, deep in Southern slave-owning Charleston, and metaphorically, when she felt compelled to turn down the offer of marriage from the man she loved, though it pained her to do so. She knew that the cost of marriage was too high to bear, and that while she might often wonder 'what if' she had chosen the life of cherished wife and mother, the consequences might be harder to live with were she consigned to a life of wondering 'what if' she had been true to herself.
Though the themes might be similar in all her novels, The Invention of Wings differs from the others in that it is based on actual historical events as well as real personages, notably Sarah and Angeline Grimke. Thus the settings for the tale move from a town in the American Deep South to a city in the North. The times are the early nineteenth century. The issues are abolition of slavery and emancipation of women. With the skills of a well-honed storyteller, Kidd opens her novel with an unforgettable scene. On the occasion of her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimke receives the present of her very own slave, an event which precipitates the awakening of Sarah's conscience and rebellion against the cultural mores of her time. We watch and witness as Sarah walks through the precarious terrain of her emerging womanhood, and grieve alongside her as her early dreams are squashed underfoot by patriarchal and societal values, against which she continuously dissents.
But where I think Kidd is most masterful is in her depictions of those numinous moments when Sarah experiences glimpses of enlightenment, luminous visions when the pieces of the puzzle, which are her life, slot together and create a new map for the future. I defy any woman reading these descriptions to walk away from Kidd's words unchanged. And this is why The Invention of Wings is a novel to share with our daughters, our sisters, our nieces. For true emancipation requires not just altering the external circumstances of our lives, though without this it is impossible to reach our highest human potential, but perhaps even more importantly, our internal landscapes need to be re-aligned with our deepest, most soul-full yearnings and desires. Reading a novel such as this offers an illuminating roadmap across the landscape of one woman's soul and conscience.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Sue Monk Kidd is an award-winning, best-selling author. Visit her website.
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