Book Review: Margaret and I, Kate Wilhelm (1971)

(Uncredited cover for the 1978 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

Nominated for the 1972 Nebula Award for Best Novel

The grayness swirled and became solid, a plain that was featureless at first, then with grotesque shapes emerging from it, obviously things growing, but things that shouldn’t have been.  They looked like monstrous scabs, like leprous fingers curled obscenely in an attitude of prayer, like parts of bodies covered with a fungus or mold, misshapen and horrible” (73).

Margaret and I (1971) is a profoundly unsettling and hallucinatory exploration of a woman’s sexual and emotional self-realization.  Or, to use the Jungian terms deployed by Wilhelm in her preliminary quotation, the novel charts the process of individuation where the conscious and unconscious “learn to know, respect and accommodate each other.”

The SF elements—a future political crisis where a third political party threatens to destabilize the country and a newly discovered knowledge that gives insight into the actions of time—are sprinkled throughout.  They are not meant to be “descriptions of a future world” but rather  carefully constructed metaphors of Margaret’s struggles.  This struggled is apparent in the title for the “I” of the title is Margaret’s subconscious.  Just as the external political environment is fragmenting, Margaret’s conscious and subconscious are not in unison.

Kate Wilhelm, famous for the masterpiece Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), produced a substantial catalogue of lesser known SF novels and large numbers of short stories that I have only recently started to investigate—I recently reviewed the wonderful collection The Downstairs Room and Other Works of Speculative Fiction (1968) and acquired a copy Juniper Time (1979) that I am looking forward to.

Without doubt, Wilhelm’s favorite form is the novella—and it is little surprise that her most successful novel, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) is a fix-up work comprised of three novellas. An adept at the shorter form, Wilhelm weaves her trademark dark/claustrophobic ruminations characterized by substantial psychological tension.

Unfortunately, in Margaret and I the psychological tension conjured in the first third looses impetus by the end. However the characterization of Margaret and her subconscious who flits in and out is the most satisfying aspect of the work.  Margaret’s slow realization, at the instigation of her subconscious, of her position as an extension of her husband and his desires is convincing and poignant.  And, the narrator as the subconscious is more than a gimmick, but a fascinating window into a character.

Recommended for fans of psychological and feminist SF.  Although, be aware that the SF elements are secondary to the novel’s aims—they are eluded to as external metaphors for Margaret’s internal struggles.  Be aware, there are extensive autoerotic sequences and hallucinatory sexual visions that are not suitable for younger readers.  Mature audiences will realize that they are necessary elements of the narrative and characterizations.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

Margaret Oliver flees from her husband Barnett to the house of her sister-in-law Josie Oliver.  In a strange sequence of decisions, Margaret decides that she rather take on the identity of Josie Oliver, who is absent, and hide her own.  She is desperate, urged on by her subconscious who is narrating, to figure out where her life went wrong and what exactly about her husband is so repulsive to her.  Also “she is still grappling from the problem of her sexuality and the senseless promise she had made herself” (21).

Josie Oliver, the owner of the house, is a well-known costume designer.  Her husband, Paul Tyson, a physicist who was murdered….  And whose secret discoveries are locked away in journals in a safe.  Various forces conspire to access the safe and uncover its secrets.  Including Dr. Bok and his assistant Morris Stein who studies “Perception Distortions in Various Psychological States” (63).

Swirling at the edges is the figure of Barnett, Margaret’s husband.  Barnett treats her as a object, he believes “buying her pretties” will satiate all her desires (which he never bothers to ask about).  Barnett is involved with the sinister politician Arnold Greenley.  Greenley wants Margaret to join Barnett on his campaign because she is pretty and speaks like Midwesterners do.  His motives at first glance seem obscure, he does not have a distinct political platform but rather lusts after power: “all he can hope for, as he well knows, is to create a schism in the two major parties and wield a power bloc that will make demands and have enough votes on hand to reward whoever promises to meet those demands…” (61).

The house itself—where all these characters’ paths intersect at various points in the narrative—seems to spurn hallucinations.  It, with the turbulent ocean nearby, is almost a nexus—a point of intersection….  Greenley and Barnett seek to force Margaret to follow a certain path against the will of her subconscious.  The subconscious desires to get at Paul’s journals to learn how to persuade Margaret to chart her own way.

Wilhelm adeptly weaves metaphors and images of fragmentation and individuation: the quests for hidden knowledge (the journals/the subconscious/sexual awareness), masquerading as another (costume designer/Margaret as Josie/Margaret as wife rather than individual), and interior searching (Margaret and her subconscious merging/choices vs. societal expectation).

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24 Replies to “Book Review: Margaret and I, Kate Wilhelm (1971)”

    1. Yeah, I found Margaret and I ultimately unsuccessful. I loved what she was doing and the metaphors she used. But it was still worth reading.

      Have you read Juniper Time (1979)? It’s more mainstream SF…. I have it on my shelf waiting….

          1. Ha! Well, I started collecting her in the early seventies so it was relatively easy to get all the early firsts. After that I just added the new titles as they came along. She was never less than very interesting. Even when the work failed to gel or was essentially pulp, there were still flourishes and touches that made it worth reading. When she was good, she was very good. As she’s got older, she’s grown more fallible. But, out of habit, I still get all the new books coming out in hard copy. I’ve ignored the digital stuff.

            1. She is definitely a worthwhile writer. I LOVED her collection The Downstairs Room. And the short story, “Baby You Were Great” is one of my fav shorts.

            2. There are just too many novels, novellas, novelettes and short stories to pick a favorite. To be honest, none of the shorter work stands out in my memory.

          1. That’s alright,I probably won’t then.It’s just that I’m not surprised,but felt dubious as the views on it are varible.The only piece I’ve read by her,is the first part of “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang”,in an anthology,but don’t recall much about it.

            Of course,there are those such as Dick, Ballard, LeGuin, Holdstock, Silverberg,Wolfe and Stapleton,who have been published within the sf genre,who can equal Kavan or even succeed her,but even those of their books that can’t,are still very readable,entertaining and literary,and that goes for other authors.From what very little I’ve read of her stuff,I’m not sure if she’s equal to any of those mentioned above,but I might go for one of her other books You’ve reviewed.

            1. Read my review of The Downstairs Room (a great collection of her short fic). Her best work is in the short form… Especially, my top 5 SF short story of all time, “Baby, You Were Great.”

            2. I’m sure I did read it.That’s just what I thought,it would be better to read her short fiction.I’ll have a look at your review again sometime.

  1. This sounds horrible and I don’t even want to read it! And WHERE is the science fiction in this acid trip?

    1. Umm, ok. Then don’t.

      But clearly you didn’t even read the SECOND PARAGRAPH of my review because I pointed out the few SF elements. And, for people who know Wilhelm’s work, she often isn’t mainstream SF — as I also tried to point out.

    2. “This sounds horrible and I don’t even want to read it! And WHERE is the science fiction in this acid trip?”

      The book was nominated for a Nebula which clearly marks it as SF. You should read it as a proto-feminist text. The existential debate between a fractured Margaret and her id is mirrored by the fractured nature of the near-future society in which she/they live.

      1. Thank you David, I did point this out but she clearly didn’t even read what I wrote. I thought the most powerful element of the novel was the delicate pairing of the glimpses of the external world outside of the house with the interior psychological state of Margaret.

  2. I found this novel fascinating because of my own mental health issues. I think Wilhelm captured a lot of the feeling of dissociation and depersonalization in the narrator’s voice.

    Personally, I think my favorite of her books is “A Sense Of Shadow”, another psychological science fiction novel.

    1. There is definitely an uncanny realism to many of the passages. Have you read Juniper Time (1979)? It’s the only other unread Wilhelm novel I own at the moment. I want her collection The Infinity Box (1975) — 4 of the 9 stories were nominated for the Nebula.

  3. It sounds like one of those books that I wouldn’t pick off the store shelf…but if for some reason I was made to read it, I’d end up enjoying it! (Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon for instance).
    Once again, thanks for the review.

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