Review: Medb, by Brigid Burke
Medb is a novel that draws the reader incrementally toward the mysteries of the human psyche, on its way touching on gender roles, the power of the occult, and the pathologization of difference. It’s a winding, inward journey that begins, fittingly, at the periphery of the story. In the first chapter, we hear the voice of Theodora as she tries to discover why her husband Dan, a musical celebrity, has ended their marriage. Not only did Dan leave her without explanation, he also re-married almost immediately. Theodora is determined to understand why her world has fallen apart, but when she tracks the newlyweds from the U.S. to England, she is frightened and put off by an encounter with Medb, who ostensibly works as a house-keeper for Dan and his new wife Morgan. Theodora becomes convinced that Medb exercises some supernatural power over Dan.
In following the mystery of Medb’s identity, the novel isn’t organized chronologically, but as successive accounts of the same events, related by different characters. Thus, the narrative drive comes less from action than from a gradual, but satisfying unveiling of one secret after another. Whether you’re able to guess the twist that is revealed a little past the halfway mark will probably depend on what experiences and expectations you bring as a reader to this novel. For myself, I was taken completely off guard, and completely delighted. The secret was simple, yet earth-shattering; it explained everything that had been bewildering up to that point, while at the same time opening new and unexplored possibilities.
This is a book that thrusts the reader continually back upon their assumptions. Theodora, who seems like an appealing and kind-hearted character, turns out to be less benign than she seems. At the heart of the story lies the idea that, not only is there no single perspective on the events being described, but that such a singular perspective doesn’t necessarily exist even within a given character. Because of this, the concept of voice emerges as supremely important, underscored by the novel occasionally using different typography for different characters. This typography, as well as collage artwork scattered throughout its pages, add a visual pleasure to the reading experience.
Another aspect that makes Medb unique is the way it treats the occult. Dan’s new wife, Morgan, is a tarot reader, and divination of various forms—dreams, numerology, and scrying—crops up throughout the book. It is, however, never used to sensationalize. I would even argue that the presence of occult elements does not move this novel into the fantastic or speculative genres. What’s being depicted is a practical occult, used by the characters in the service of learning something about our human nature. At one point, while Theodora is speculating about Medb’s malefic influence, another one of Dan’s friends admits to using divination, including tarot and runes, in his own attempt to understand Dan’s behaviour. The tone conveys that these practices are no big deal. For a reader who is a non-practitioner, Medb offers a compelling and pragmatic view of the ways such rituals can deepen our understanding of the world and of each other.
At just over 200 pages with illustrations, Medb isn’t a long book, but within this space it rewards the reader nuanced view of the path toward self-acceptance, one that is both fresh and wise.