Friday, October 5, 2012

Madame Zee, Pearl Luke


Madame Zee
Pearl Luke
HarperCollins/Harper Perennial
365 pages
Kindle Edition: USD $11.52

Madame Zee: A Clairvoyant Without Illusions
review by Mary W. Walters

Those of us who cannot foresee the future may be tempted to assume that psychic ability comes with some awareness of what one’s visions mean. This is not necessarily so, as we come to realize early in this fictionalized biography of clairvoyant Madame Zee. It was largely due to a series of misinterpreted visions that Zee, born Mabel Rowbotham in Lancashire, England in 1890, became a central (and generally disliked) figure in the Aquarian Foundation—a spiritualistic cult based on Vancouver Island off Canada’s west coast–and partner to its enigmatic and charismatic leader, Brother XII.

Mabel had the first intimations of her psychic abilities in childhood: she called them “daydreams.” The visions intensified following the tragic deaths of her cherished elder sister Honore when Mabel was only seven, and then of her young brother William a year later. Not only was Mabel bereaved and confused by these deaths, she also felt responsible, and grew into adulthood with a heavy burden of guilt. Honore came to take a central role in Mabel’s “daydreams,” maturing as she would have done if she had lived.

In this rendering of Zee’s life by Pearl Luke – a powerful fiction writer whose first novel, Burning Ground, won the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Novel – Mabel’s approach to her psychic gifts from the beginning is to attempt to understand where they are coming from, as well as what they mean. Isolated by her clairvoyant episodes, throughout her life she also seeks to find others who are like her—with marginal success.

In London, where her family moves when she is 15, she visits the London Academy of Psychical Research, and investigates spiritualism, clairvoyance, reincarnation, and the-then-relatively-new Theosophy movement founded by Helena Blavatsky. When she is 20, she moves with her parents to prairie Canada, where she takes up a position as a teacher, but her beliefs and visions lead to her dismissal. A bad marriage comes to an end in Seattle, and she flees to Pensacola to seek the counsel of her ex father-in-law, Coulson, a Spiritualist.

In Florida, where she assumes the name Madame Zee to mark a new beginning, Mabel experiences companionship, love, more loss and increasing insight into who she is and what her powers will allow her to do–for herself and others. She develops her talent as a visual artist, creating drawings of her visions as well as realistic scenes, and meets her second husband – the attractive but deeply twisted Roger Painter.

Then Madame Zee has a powerful vision involving herself and Brother XII, and she and Roger travel to Vancouver Island to join his colony. (Anyone who has been to the Island will recognize the place: “Where has the moss ever grown so green? Thick luxurious towels of it wrap everything in sight. It covers the boulders at the top of the embankment and clings to mammoth fir trees surrounded by yet more mosses, pea-green foreground for a panorama that slopes steeply down to even more green, the tops of trees poking through wisps of fog parted like tossed veils over emerald waters”).

Now Zee is plunged into the world of Brother XII and the cult that grew around his charisma and apparent mystic capabilities in the late 1920s, when he established colonies in Cedar-By-The-Sea and on Valdes Island. She rises in power through the ranks of his disintegrating empire to a point that will both rescue her and drive her toward destruction. Luke’s storytelling powers are acute, allowing us to relate utterly to Madame Zee’s evolution: “Whenever she reflects [ . . . ] on becoming that which is herself, she understands clearly what [Brother XII’s writing] means for about a fifth of a second before the meaning curls away from her again, like a ribbon curling in a gust of air.”

 In the notes that follow the text of Madame Zee (interesting to all readers and particularly useful to reading/study groups), the author explains that one of her purposes in writing the novel was to try to figure out why the real Madame Zee became a figure who was so disliked in the Aquarian Foundation. Part of the reason was certainly the self-protective and aloof personality that developed in response to her past tragedies and abuses—not to mention the difficult situation in which she found herself once she reached the Island and began to really get to know Brother XII. 

But Madame Zee was also isolated from others by her gifts, and as a writer I found much in her to which I could relate. What might be seen by others as haughtiness, distance and abruptness was no doubt an effort to protect her essential self, and to hide the layers of disappointment when she thought she’d found someone to whom she would be able to relate, only to have her hopes dashed each time yet again.

Madame Zee, first published by HarperCollins in 2007 and now available as an ebook, covers huge swaths of territory geographically, and represents dozens of characters keenly and succinctly. But the book is also thematically vast – touching on issues that range from early 20th century feminism, to religion, spirituality and the nature of psychic powers, to the meaning of life, to the quality of relationships among women and of those between women and men, to drug dependency, to the power of charismatics, the evolution of cults, and more.

Always, and above all else, Madame Zee is a beautifully written story that will draw you along from one satisfying scene to another. And unless you also have the gift of foresight, each new adventure in Zee’s life will come as a complete surprise.

Todays guest reviewer, Mary W. Walters  is an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction. Most recently she published the stylish and witty novel, ‘The Whole Clove Diet’. She is a highly acclaimed editor of books, academic articles, grant proposals, papers, theses, essays and blogs. She is a writing coach, and teaches academics, non-profit organizations and artists how to write really effective grant applications. Mary also blogs about what she knows and what she thinks on her blog, The Militant Writer.


1 comment:

  1. I'm fascinated by psychic ability. I know a lot of it is based on being able to read body language, but I do think some of it is the real deal.


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