The Magical Past
This erotic romance about time-travel between New York in 1961 and an ancient African matriarchal queendom is fabulous in every sense. Anyone who likes the surrealistic, voodoo-and-jazz-infused 1970s novels of African-American writer Ishmael Reed but would prefer less male chauvinism need look no further. Anyone who loved "The Wiz", the African-American movie version of The Wizard of Oz, would love the larger-than-life drama of Sorcerer. Anyone who shares Ntozake Shange’s belief that “where there is a woman, there is magic” (from her 1987 novel about three sisters, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo) could find confirmation in this woman-centered novel which includes strong men.
Chloe, heroine of the saga, is introduced to the reader as a young widow in Harlem who is just emerging from grief after her husband and son were tragically killed in a car accident. She has already lived enough to know that her conservative Christian mother misled her about sex, marriage and the purpose of life:
“Her baby had been her refutation to all that grimness and denial her mother had memorized and recited to her time and again, that passionate bodies together equaled sin, so that you in turn were born in sin. She had never said it to Mom, she had let Jimmy [her son] be her charming, burbling little proof that no, two people didn’t join together out of duty and then martyr themselves to raise new worshippers. . . Ecstasy, too, must be a gift from God.”
Chloe has stopped attending church, which upsets her mother and the minister. They assume she is simply rebellious because of her loss. Although Chloe does not take part in public protests against racial discrimination, she has enough intelligence and self-respect to ask her mother: “what are we doing, a whole bunch of Negroes packing into a church to pray to a God with—with what? Perfect chestnut hair and a white complexion?”
Chloe is ready for something new, even if her bitter mother (abandoned by Chloe’s father years before) does not understand. Since Chloe must support herself, she finds a job at the Marshall Historical Reference Library and Museum, a converted mansion which houses artifacts from the African and black (or Negro, in contemporary terms) American past, funded by the liberal government of John F. Kennedy. There, Chloe meets Ronald, a gentleman and a scholar.
By watching the apartment across the street, Chloe also meets a more exotic man, an African artist who paints in the nude. Ethan, who comes to the library/museum to make a far-fetched claim about several of its treasures, is as muscular and handsome as a work of art himself, and he wants Chloe. He seems at first like the perfect alternative to her lonely bouts of masturbation after work.
Sex between Ethan and Chloe is much more exciting than the married sex that Chloe remembers. It is also magical, as she discovers when her orgasms propel her into a different time and place, which seems to be the land of her dreams. Nudity is socially accepted in that other world, and so are group sex rituals, which she comes to recognize as an expression of something other than self-indulgence or “primitive” lack of self-control, as the conservatives of 1961 would see them. Most amazing of all, Chloe is treated like a queen in the other world. At first, she thinks “Queen” is simply an endearment.
Chloe is pulled back and forth between the accurately-described world of New York in the early sixties (complete with current clothing styles, television shows, jazz musicians, vinyl records and the invention of the birth-control pill) and the red earth, trees and architecture of an African nation which seems to exist before recorded time, and which has its own forms of spirituality.
Like a detective, Ronald researches “Orisha” (better known as a Yoruba word for “god” than as a place-name) to satisfy his own curiosity and to find out what Chloe is really involved in. From his first meeting with Ethan, Ronald suspects him of having a hidden agenda. Chloe assumes that the tension between the two men is simple jealousy until she learns more about Orishan politics. Even after she discovers that Ethan also exists in that other world as a courtier named Ethannes, she can’t be sure what or whom to believe.
Ethan introduces Chloe to Maurice, a strange man who runs a dusty “shop” of magical supplies. According to Ethan, he practices “Orishan” magic, but according to Ronald, he is a priest of Haitian voodoo. How do these spiritual practices differ? Could there be any overlap?
Like a queen who must make decisions of state under pressure from opposing advisors, Chloe must decide fast what to think and what to do because time is running out in the other world. Snooping through Ronald’s research material, Chloe finds the story of Makeda, the queen of Sheba (Ethiopia), who has an affair with Solomon, king of Israel.
According to the legend, their son goes to visit his father at age twenty, and when he returns to his homeland with the sons of his father’s courtiers, one of them steals the Ark of the Covenant and hides it somewhere in Ethiopia, where it is still said to be. Chloe is amazed to find this story about a powerful African queen and her connection with a Hebrew kingdom summarized in a passage from the King James version of the Bible. As Ronald repeatedly explains, much of history has been buried and distorted, so discovering the truth is a matter of sifting through the evidence.
The emphasis on heterosexuality in this novel seems logical in terms of the traditional mission of an Orishan (or Ethiopian?) queen: to find the best possible mate to father the child who will inherit her throne and (if necessary) save the nation from its enemies. Ethan, Ronald, and a villain in the other world all want to mate with Chloe, and they each have different motives.
As in more conventional romances, the heroine’s choice of a male consort is crucial. However, Chloe’s sensuous relationship with her best friend and chief lady in waiting in Orisha shows that she is not homophobic. The scenes of sex involving multiple players in this novel are both hypnotic and believable.
The author does an impressive job of keeping two parallel plots moving forward, although the past literally crashes into the present when the crisis in Orisha becomes urgent. The crisis is both political and ideological, and is all about the significance of pleasure as well as the status of women. Will the marvelously uninhibited, life-loving culture of the African past be destroyed forever?
Although modern readers think they know the answer to that question, the author manages to throw in a few miracles to change an outcome that seems inevitable. The increasing velocity of time-travel in the last few chapters is dizzying and somewhat over-the-top, but the author’s imaginary world is true to its own laws.
By the last chapter, Chloe has become consciously aware of living in the twentieth century as well as in the distant past, and she can choose where to be at any moment. She and her mother have not yet completely reconciled, but Chloe has opened her Mom’s eyes to an alternate reality. Loose ends have been tied up, and Chloe has found her faith.
The author seems as intriguing as her heroine: “Tamzin Hall was born in Florida but has spent many years as a nomad, having lived in Ghana, Belgium, Italy, the Bahamas and Brazil. She now calls London home and manages a small but popular jazz nightclub while studying languages.” Way cool.
The knowledge and skill which went into this novel suggest that Tamzin Hall might have written other material under other names. In any case, this reviewer looks forward to her next book.