The Mourning of Angels
by Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten (Peru 196264)
Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
I READ PATRICIA EDMISTENS DRAMATIC and sensuous debut novel, The Mourning of Angels, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Her marvelous evocation of the first days of the Peace Corps provided an escape from the sadness of New York City, where I live, as well as a much-needed perspective on the savagery of that act.
In straight forward, beautifully descriptive prose, subtly impregnated with the political and cultural history of Peru, Edmisten charts Lydia Schaefers journey from innocence she is a Catholic girl, still a virgin, the product of a protective, loving home to a stark, tragic maturity. Lydia describes her view beyond her barriada in Arequipa.
Gray and white dominate the landscape. No road is paved. There are no trees. Nothing green. No spring flowers interfere with the dreariness. Looking up, however, there is visual relief. Misti, a 19,150 foot volcano, said to be dormant by experts, but alive to those who know her tremors, rises proudly over The City of my Hope. Snow lavishly bleeds down her sides, like the white mantle of the Madonna.
As this image of the Virgins cloak implies, Lydia struggles with her strong Catholic beliefs in the face of rampant infant mortality, the yearly pregnancies of poor women, local priests who sire children and the churchs refusal to allow birth control. Interestingly, she never gives up her Catholicism, but rather gradually adapts the religion to her new knowledge and beliefs, much as Indians force the Catholic Church to incorporate native rituals into the liturgy. And, she breaks her own rule to remain a virgin until marriage. With a sensuality that is both innocent and literally rapturous, Edmisten writes of Lydia making love with her in-country co-worker, Rafael, a mestizo with a Spanish father and Indian mother. They are journeying back to his village beyond Machu Picchu, when they stop to swim in a mountain pool and then make love.
Rafaels kiss is moist and sweet, and as he eases on top of me, it becomes more familiar, more urgent. The air is fresh and fragrant, a light breeze glances off our warm bodies. I look up at blinding white clouds and reach my arms out to them. We remain immobile for a few minutes and then slowly rock. A condor soars overhead. I have read of eagles mating in mid-air, free falling, unaware of the doom below. It was like that.
The doom she senses in her moment of sexual abandon foretells of political clashes and violence that will irrevocably change her life and radicalize her world view.
Marnie Mueller is the author of Green Fires, The Climate of the Country and forthcoming, My Mothers Island. She lives in New York City.