Book Review: Only the Women Are Burning by Nancy Burke

When three women are lost in fiery deaths, Cassandra Taylor—a mother and former anthropologist—investigates, sensing that the self-immolations, presumed by the media to be political statements, are caused by something entirely different. Part mystery, part science fiction, part a suburban domestic novel, Nancy Burke's Only the Women are Burning asks important questions about women in contemporary suburban lives.

Cassandra Taylor, like many middle-aged women, has plenty of practice putting her own dreams and career on the backburner in order to focus on her family. She has a lovely home in Hillston, New Jersey. Three wonderful daughters. And fills her free hours with a part-time docent position at a museum.

It’s not the life she ever imagined living, but she’s trying to be content.

Until one morning, when the woman beside her at the train station bursts into flames. Cassandra’s quick thinking can’t save her, and soon there’s a pile of ash on the concrete.

Beneath the woman’s clothes and coffee cup, left pristine and untouched by the fire that consumed her.

What struck me, in slowed time, was how I had just watched two gold rings fall to the paved platform and bounce to a stillness next to the rumpled blue clothing. The sun had glinted on a diamond as it tumbled. A sense of my own incompetence, remorse, not only from knowing I’d done nothing to save her. Banhi’s jewels had also fallen to the cement slab of floor under her, bouncing, then coming to a stillness, a finality, their symbolic meaning in life now absurd immediately after death took her.

 

It all came flooding back. My Bangalore days and my failure there to save Banhi. Dowry deaths. India. Hindu. Re-incarnation.

 

This, I knew, was not that.

Two other women also became ash that morning, one of them Cassandra’s estranged friend, Cindy. The authorities are quick to suggest the immolations were political, or the work of a cult of unhappy women.

But Cassandra, a former anthropologist who has previous experiences with women burning, is sure something much bigger is happening. She digs into the history of Hillston, the lives of the women, the science of radiation and alternative medicine, and the superstition surrounding spontaneous human combustion in search of the truth.

Unfortunately, just like her namesake from Greek myth, she finds she must fight to have that truth accepted by the men around her.

I waited, staring at him, daring him to push this aside as Heffly had done, as the Bangalore police inspectors had done to me so long ago about Banhi. It was because I was a woman. They’d assumed my perception was clouded by my emotions. That, I knew, was the smug superiority they wore with their uniforms, the belief that, if they couldn’t explain something to me, then it didn’t need explaining. It could be dismissed.

 

I could be dismissed.

With Only the Women are Burning, Nancy Burke has created a novel that defies easy categorization. It’s an incredibly plausible science fiction tale that dips into horror. It’s a small-town mystery and personal drama. It’s a searing feminist condemnation of caste systems and patriarchal oppression.

Truly, it’s all of these things simultaneously.

Burke takes myriad disparate threads—dowry deaths in India, the hypothetical origins of Stonehenge, secret societies searching for knowledge, spontaneous human combustion, mythology and folklore, the dangers of radiation, New Age cures and pseudo-medicine, the many traumas women endure (and are expected to suffer through in silence)—and weaves them into a shockingly cohesive whole.

The more outré details and leaps of logic work because Burke grounds everything through Cassandra, a worthy heroine and relatable narrator, whose suburban life and personal problems (an absent, silent husband; fraught dynamics with her sisters; a dissatisfaction with her abandoned studies) are familiar and poignant amidst all of the madness.

PBS aired Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” the Friday night before Cindy’s memorial service. Evil witches were burned at the stake in European superstitions. St. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Every culture had its own variety of mythology about fire and the burning of women.

 

And my own discontent, raising its ugly head, a sense of seething frustration, the choices my life drove me to make, my lack of a channel for the passions that burned inside me, terrified me. I imagined I, too, could just burst into flame…

This is a story that burns in every sense of the word. Burke wastes no time in breaking our hearts and sparking a rage over the inequities between the genders. Tragedy permeates Only the Women are Burning, but Cassandra’s determination and zeal prevents us from wallowing in the sadness. Instead, we follow her eagerly in her quest. In many ways, this is a strident call to arms.

Burke’s prose is vibrant and powerful. Cassandra’s voice is a compelling one, and the narrative has an urgency that encourages readers to devour the entire story in a single sitting. The unexpected diversions into science and mythology are like tantalizing bread crumbs that lead us through the darkened forest, drawing us deeper into the peculiar mystery until everything is suddenly, most satisfactorily, illuminated.

Only the Women are Burning is a novel that will linger long after you set it down. In a market over-saturated with police procedurals and grim private investigators, it’s a truly unique story that stands out like a beacon fire, and may be just the thing to reinvigorate readers who have grown jaded with the predictable, usual fare.

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