Anne Harris is a deft and highly imaginative storyteller, with a gift for creating warm and sympathetic characters, exploring intellectually stimulating themes, and for building absorbing and occasionally startling fantasy setpieces. She is also nearly as good at shamelessly manipulative emotional button-mashing as Steven Spielberg. These skills come together to create a wildly uneven but undeniably entertaining novel in Inventing Memory, an ambitious piece of post-feminist, magical realist storytelling with a reach that, ultimately, exceeds its grasp.
In the first part, we meet Shula, a slave girl in ancient Sumer who finds herself chosen by the goddess Inanna to be her servant. Shula is freed and goes to work in Inanna's temple as a scribe. She keeps the fact that she has been in direct contact with the goddess to herself, but that miracles seem to occur in her presence catches the eye of those in the temple with a political or personal axe to grind. Shula also takes note of the fact that Inanna is engaged in a bitter rivalry with the winged Belili, another goddess who claims to be older than all of the others. Though she remains loyal to Inanna, Shula befriends Belili and her snake companion. These scenes have a real sense of magic in the writing. Harris understands the power of myth and has captured it in her own storytelling.
In part two, the story shifts, with spine-cracking abruptness, to the modern day, where we meet Wendy Chrenko as an unpopular and ruthlessly picked-on schoolgirl. (It is impossible to read these passages and not suspect that Harris is indulging in a little purgative autobiography here.) Wendy is obviously linked across the millennia to Shula, and exactly how becomes the plot's central mystery. Wendy encounters Belili herself in a park — in a scene that ends up raising more than a couple of questions when the story's final revelation is laid out — and the meeting inspires her to take up writing as a means of escaping her unhappy life. (See?) She soon drifts into a sweet budding romance with Ray Mackie, another artistically inclined wallflower. Harris's depiction of adolescent life and all of its insecurities and pain rings true. Scenes of heartless bullying have such a visceral force that, again, it's not possible to think Harris isn't exorcising several demons here. Likewise, her portrayal of first love and the way it is flush with hopes and dreams for a perfect life is genuinely touching. On the other hand, Ray's drunk abusive father and meek abused mother come across as After-School Special stereotypes, and, as effective as the scenes are in which Ray or Wendy are cruelly mistreated, one can't help but notice how impeccably timed they are to pull emotional responses from you on cue.
In order to escape home, Ray falls in with a group of identity thieves and earns a spectacular dishonest living while Wendy enters college and catches feminism. She and Ray become more estranged from one another, and, as in Shula's story, an unplanned pregnancy becomes a catalyst. They eventually split when Ray's fraudulent livelihood catches up to him and he has to split town. Wendy stays behind and, bouyed by her feminist friends, continues to pursue her graduate level studies into the possibility of a prehistoric matriarchal culture.
Despite the novel's jumping into feminist ideologies with both feet, I wouldn't call it a feminist novel. In fact I think it will piss feminists off. For one thing, conservatives who hate the very thought of feminism will find in most of Harris's supporting cast exactly the kinds of stereotypes — vegans, lesbians who work at abortion clinics — to fuel their disgust. And Harris herself, while I think she is certainly sympathetic to feminist thinking, does seem to be smirking at these characters and their self-righteousness. One of the novel's main themes is that all ideologies are bad, when you get right down to it, particularly those that divide us by gender, placing one beneath the other when everyone should really just respect everyone. While that may be a theme in accordance with 1970's feminism, it certainly isn't in accordance with 1990's feminism, which (in my humble and likely-to-be-viciously-rebuked liberal humanist opinion) replaced the idea of raising women up with that of just tearing men down.
The final section of the book becomes a little banal, as Harris resorts to thriller-novel contrivances and dopey SF clichés, not the least of which is a mad scientist, to bring Wendy at last together with both Shula and Ray. The way in which Shula and Wendy are eventually linked is a clever one, but what may disappoint some readers is the fact that the book, for all of its dazzling evocation of myth, its attention to gender politics and the effects of history, turns out, in the end, to be only a love story. I think Anne Harris is a fascinating and enjoyable writer with a lot of worthwhile ideas to offer (though I'm not necessarily 100% with her on the idea reflected in the book's title). And this is why I'm inclined to give Inventing Memory, in the final analysis, a thumbs-up despite its imperfections. Harris may be iffy on the SFnal stuff, but where the human heart is concerned, she scores a bullseye with every shot.