Friday, August 01, 2008

Book review: Barbara Wood's Woman of a Thousand Secrets

Wood, Barbara. Woman of a Thousand Secrets. NY: St. Martin's Griffin, Sept. 2008. 483pp. $13.95, trade pb, 978-0-312-36369-7.

Reviewed for LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program (it's not out until next month).

In Barbara Wood’s colorful followup to Daughter of the Sun (2007), an “island girl” from pre-Columbian times sets out on a quest which takes her from the burgeoning metropolis at Mayapan to the rainforest jungles of Tikal (modern-day Guatemala) and finally westward to the Mexican interior.

Twenty-one years ago, an elderly couple living on Pearl Island, off the Cuban coast, took in a baby they found floating in a waterproof basket. Although tall, light-skinned Tonina enjoys swimming through the island’s gentle lagoons and is beloved by her adoptive grandparents, local men find her unattractive and are humiliated by her success in pearl diving. It becomes clear she’ll never fit into their society, so her grandmother, Guama, invents a story about her husband’s illness as a way of convincing her to leave voluntarily. Landing on a deserted beach after jealous rivals attack her party’s canoe, Tonina gathers up her travel pack containing food, medicine, coconut face paint, and a mysterious glass goblet and marches inland in search of the red healing flower that will cure her grandfather. During her adventure, she encounters many people, places, and customs she finds unfamiliar and exotic. Her search assumes near-religious proportions to the followers she attracts, among whom are the trader One Eye, a crafty dwarf, and H’meen, a young healer aged before her time. But none becomes as important to Tonina as Kaan, a ballplayer of common birth who disdains his outsider origins to gain acceptance by the Mayans. Kaan’s own sacred pilgrimage is destined to separate them eventually, yet he’s honor-bound to accompany her at first. There’s also an egomaniacal villain, of course, though he’s not nearly as well-rounded as the other characters.

Tonina’s journey immerses readers in the diverse cultures of the place and period, and the plot develops organically out of Wood’s vividly rendered settings. The historical detail is woven smoothly into the story, for the most part. Some commentary meant to provide external context is distracting: for example, we’re told that in the land of the goblet’s origin, it’s the Year of Our Lord 1323, and that the islanders’ lives will change irrevocably 200 years hence. Because many such examples occur early on, the novel takes a little while to settle into, but it’s a fascinating journey from that point forward. Readers who picture pre-Columbian Mexico merely as a land of bloodthirsty sacrifices and magnificent stone ruins will see both of these, but will also discover much about politics, religious ceremonies, clothing, roads, dwellings, calendars, even sports. Wood makes clear that many different ethnic groups populated the region, though some shared a language or other customs. Many plot twists are completely unexpected; Tonina’s mission alters slightly at several points in the narrative. Some events can’t be explained by traditional Western reasoning, but feel appropriate to the setting. The novel has plenty of lively humor, too, particularly in a certain hammock scene.

An absorbing, immensely enjoyable fictional travelogue through the lush scenery and multifaceted civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica, with, perhaps, room left for a sequel.


  1. Hi! I enjoy your blog a lot, I added it to my blogroll!

    Kind regards,


  2. Hi Geerte,

    Thanks! I've added your blog to my sidebar as well.

  3. Great review! You just added another book to my TBR!

    I subscibe to your blog through Google reader, and really enjoy it.

  4. Thanks, Teddy, I hope you enjoy the book as well!

    I need to start experimenting with Google Reader, so that I don't miss out on posts at other blogs. For some reason I haven't gotten into reading via aggregators yet, but it seems to be the way to go.

  5. I would definitely put this book, on a list of my readings. It covers many aspects such as clothing, ceremonies, dwellings. Also, I am interested to read more in this book about Tonina’s journey. By looking at the review, it sounds by it every reader could discover different diverse cultures.