Yesterday was not a good day for anything other than reading -- too many interruptions and too much anticipation of more interruptions. So I got in some reading.
Spoilers ahead, and maybe a trigger warning for animal death.
The reading still requires great effort, and still for the same reasons: Who am I, the Reader, supposed to connect with? and what the hell is going on?
The book is divided into three parts, titled "Departure," "Absence," and "Return."
"Departure" covers Sweeney's brief tenure at the University of the Archangels and Saint John the Divine, a roughly nine-week stint during which she does little but drink, smoke, do drugs, and hang out with an assortment of very, very weird characters who mostly do the same thing. Maybe she was traumatized by the murder (?) she witnessed at the elite reception. I don't know. She sees a lot more weird stuff, nightmare/horror movie weird, including animal sacrifice (I had to skip the details of that because I don't deal well with that kind of thing) and an attempted suicide. But the POV seems to have settled firmly into Sweeney's hands.
The middle section "Absence" is very short, all in Sweeney's POV, and covers the transition from her expulsion from the University (aka "the Divine") to her establishing a career at some museum. After being kicked out of the Divine on trumped up charges -- drugs, which everyone else was doing -- she transfers to another school, gets her degree, and puts all the bullshit behind her. Sort of. All of it is engineered by one of the Benandanti.
There is a scene toward the end of "Departure" in which one of Sweeney's friends, Annie, explains some of the background as to what's driving all the action, and some of the background on the Benandanti. Annie, who claims her cousin was murdered/suicided by the Benandanti, identifies them as the philosophical/religious descendants of the marauders who descended "out of the northern steppes" of Europe tens of thousands of years ago and wiped out the bloodthirsty matriarchal/matrilineal culture that existed at the time to forcibly replace it -- not just in Europe but around the entire world -- with the patriarchy that built all the buildings and wrote all the books and created all the art and made us the civilized beings (??) we are today.
This brief mention (pages 127-128) is the only clear reference up to this point to what all this is about, and if the reader doesn't bring some background in this to the reading, I do not know how they would ever be able to understand what's going on. I guess you'd just have to read it and take everything for granted, maybe shrug it all off as a horror story or something.
(Author Hand makes reference to the historical benandanti in her "Author's Notes" at the end; they were real, though nothing like the organization (??) she fictionalized. And when I suggest that the average reader might be lost navigating this novel, I note that many/most of the authors whose works she cites are residents of my own library.)
Having reached roughly the halfway point, I seriously considered giving up. I didn't like anyone in the story. None of the characters appealed to me at all, and I had a very uncomfortable feeling about the author's objective in writing the book. When I started to write this update, I was so unsure of my reaction that I cheated by looking at some of the reviews (not GR or Amazon) posted. The review from Kirkus confirmed my unease. This may be an award-winning book, but the premise is, for me, very unsettling.
Will that premise be carried through to the end? I don't know. I will keep reading, but all my instincts are on guard.