Always political and never preachy, Louise Marley takes on organized religion and the forces of economic development in The Child Goddess, a novel that combines a medical mystery with close-up scrutiny of such far-ranging human concerns as faith, forbidden love, economic imperialism, the joys and sorrows of parenting and—last but certainly not least—fear of death.
Marley's heroine is Mother Isabel Burke, a medical anthropologist who also happens to be a member of the highly controversial Priestly Order of the Mary Magdalene. Female priests are still a new innovation in the Roman Catholic Church, and the Magdalene Order is struggling for acceptance. As a result, Church politics form part of the Mother General's motivation in choosing Isabel's latest assignment—the guardianship of a strange little girl, Oa, from the planet of Virimund.
Oa's planet was thought to be uninhabited when Earth's ExtraSolar Corporation set down there, planning to build a hydrogen fuel-cell plant. Once onsite, the company made an inconvenient discovery: Virimund had at least one populated island. The people on the island were descendants of a long-forgotten Earth colony, and all that remained of them was a handful of survivors living under primitive conditions. The first encounter with the plant workers ended tragically. One child and one energy worker were killed, while Oa was injured.
ExtraSolar's concern for Oa is, from the start, perfunctory. The workers on Virimund are more concerned about the discovery of humans on their allegedly empty world. Depending on the legal status of Oa and her friends, the much-needed plant may not be able to open on schedule...or at all. The government requires answers and explanations, and at first ExtraSolar sees Isabel as a means to move forward, a person they can use to get their permits and open up the plant.
Unfortunately for the corporation, Isabel is hard to manipulate—especially once she learns how Oa has been treated by ExtraSolar doctors. After receiving medical aid for her injuries, the girl was not only kept in isolation but transported against her will to Earth. During the voyage she was subjected to medical tests so frequent and invasive that they amounted to child abuse.
The regulations and inquiries surrounding Oa's status are so complex that Isabel cannot simply take her away. Instead, she must fight complex bureaucratic battles to save her. Chief among her adversaries is the girl's tormentor, Doctor Adetti, who is determined to continue studying the child. His research seems, to Isabel, utterly pointless, but she is forced to enlist an expert of her own to prove it. She selects Simon Edwards, whose experience and position in the World Health and Welfare Agency make him an obvious ally. Simon also happens to be Isabel's former lover, a man she broke her vows for and then abandoned.
Fighting sexual temptation all the way, the pair works to disentangle Oa from the doctors and corporate executives who want to exploit her, looking for answers to the host of questions surrounding Virimund: why were no adults found on Oa's island? Why is Oa convinced she has no soul? Why does Doctor Adetti believe that Oa may hold the key to extending human life indefinitely...and is he correct?
Though Isabel and Oa ultimately have the law on their side, it is apparent that ethics and regulations might all too easily be ignored if the girl does turn out to be the key to life extension. The world leaders in whose hands Oa's fate rests are the very people who can most easily afford such a technology, should one be developed. The more Isabel learns and then reveals to them about Oa, the greater the danger that their allies might turn on all the children of Virimund. Unlike other novels whose conflicts depend in part upon hearings and regulatory wrangling, The Child Goddess is neither overcomplicated nor boring—in fact, this contradiction gives the whole process significant bite.
Marley's heroines tend to be accomplished and educated women, often pioneers in their field, and her books examine situations close to the hearts and everyday lives of many women: religious oppression in Terrorists of Irustan, coping with devastating grief in The Maquisarde, or the effects of living in poverty in The Glass Harmonica. The protagonists of these books are well-placed in their cultures, almost seeming to be icons of conservative society when their stories begin. Equipped to succeed if anyone can, they nevertheless hit walls. Marley shows readers the limitations of the societies they—and her readers—live in. When these women begin to shed their assigned roles and assumptions of privilege, they are punished for it...but they also discover the benefits of working outside the system.
Despite this overtly feminist approach to storytelling, it has never before been possible to label Marley's work as fundamentally transgressive...until now. The reappearance of the cross-dressing Jen-Li (from Terrorists of Irustan) in The Child Goddess, coupled with the creation of Mother Isabel Burke, changes that.
With impeccable academic credentials and the backing of the Church, Isabel might at first seem to be another textbook Marley superwoman. But by depicting a woman priest in such detail as she celebrates Mass, practices celibacy, and carries the twin torches of faith and intellectual inquiry into dark places, Marley chips at the base of a centuries-old pillar upon which the everyday world rests. Isabel cuts a powerful figure in the imagination. She is visually impressive, with her shaved scalp (Magdalenes set themselves apart by adopting a full tonsure), and her possession of priestly garb. Unlike Jin-Li, she is not in drag, but has rather assumed ownership of garments previously reserved to men. Isabel is so convincing, so matter-of-factly presented as an icon of how-things-should-be, that a reader coming up for air from this book may feel surprised that the real world has not caught up with this author's vision.
The depiction would not work, of course, if Isabel were portrayed a saint, but she is entirely human. Working closely with Simon means she must struggle with her vow of celibacy in the face of a stronger temptation than mere lust—the two are genuinely in love. An even greater seduction, in some ways, is Oa herself—by caring for the girl, Isabel is able to sample the joys of a mother-daughter relationship.
These emotional complications leave Isabel fighting three battles at once, each vital. Even as she struggles with her desire for Simon, Isabel must fend off the red tape wielded by Adetti and those who would use Oa as a guinea pig for human life-extension experiments. At the same time, she must find a way to gently work through a haze of cultural misunderstandings to get to the true heart of the matter: understanding the nature of Oa and all the other children on Virimund. It is obvious from the outset that not even a highly educated priest will prevail in all three struggles. The stakes are high, in other words, and Marley has stacked them in a tidy pyramid—Isabel has much to lose personally, and Oa's freedom is at stake—but depending on what the medical tests show about her longevity, the entire fabric of human society could be affected.
It is this complexity, both in characterization and world-building, that keep drawing me back to Marley's novels. The Child Goddess is a core sample of a vast and complex human society, one whose history and culture are too rich for any single book to fully explore.
(Book info: Ace Hardcover, ISBN 0-441-01136-5, $23.95 US, 336 pages, May 2004).