By Constance Garcia-Barrio
When several generations of women from the same family reside under one roof, it can force old secrets to surface. The women in “Black Candle Women,” a just-published novel by Diane Marie Brown, find themselves in that predicament.
The Montrose women, New Orleans transplants to southern California, include: 40-ish Victoria, a therapist who owns the quaint two-story bungalow where the family lives and where she sees patients; her 30-something sister Willow, who works as Victoria’s receptionist and who has helped raise Victoria’s daughter, Nickie, 16; and August, Victoria’s and Willow’s grandmother.
The women live careful quiet lives because they fear a curse that means death for any man who loves them. Victoria hasn’t told Nickie about the curse, not wanting to burden her with it until she’s more mature. The women’s buttoned-down living succeeds until Nickie brings home Felix, a boy she likes and with whom she has classes, to help celebrate her 17th birthday.
Victoria sees Felix as a threat, someone who could derail Nickie’s career as a top student and lead her to explore her sexuality. The Montrose women, well versed in Vodou from their New Orleans rearing, turn to those practices after Felix visits. Victoria, anxious to keep the status quo, goes to the altar hidden in her room.
“Victoria flipped the switch in her closet, the sharp light finding the carpet between boxes and bags, and candles, a hefty black one in the middle. Though it served as the centerpiece to her altar, the black candle [was] used only in the most extreme of situations.
“After the seventh hour, she’d snuff the flame, and by then the young man would lose any …affection for Nickie…”
Willow, on the other hand, welcomes the novelty of a guest. She uses items from her stock of ingredients, which include “blessing oils and wild sage, thin legs plucked off dead spiders, petals of jasmine, and dried berries…” and more to cast a spell to reveal if Felix has a genuine liking for Nickie.
Neither sister knows what the other has done, but tension grows between them. It’s stoked up more when Nickie goes to Willow later for permission to get birth control pills. Nickie, who’s underage and needs an adult’s consent to buy the pills, assuages her Aunt Willow’s doubts by saying that she wants the pills because an ingredient in them will help her clear up her skin.
Besides Nickie’s budding romance, friction between Victoria and Willow comes from another source. In the Montrose family, one daughter in every generation has the gift of healing. Victoria and Willow both believe themselves the chosen one. Also, Nickie is precious to both women because as the only daughter, she’s the bearer of the gift in her generation.
Augusta, the grandmother, sympathizes with Nickie, but she feels troubled by events in her own past. In addition, two previous strokes have left her unable to speak.
As the household unravels, Willow invites Madelyn, her mother and Victoria’s, to come to California. Madelyn was wild as a young woman and now, older, is recovering from drug use. Truths start coming to light with her arrival.
“Black Candle Women” hinges on complicated relationships, but it also reveals the love that the women share.
“[Willow] stored a vial of youth potion in her closet, spritzing her grandmother’s sheets once a week [with] a mixture of amethyst, lavender oil, and a couple of drops of holy water from St. Lucy’s.]
The novel brims with other potions and spells, perhaps some of them learned by the author as a young person when her mother took her in the summer to visit family in New Orleans. Then again, Brown may have studied the remedies later. In either case, “Black Candle Women” contains much information on plants used for healing.
The story offers a contemporary view of West African based religions like Yoruba and Vodou that came to the Americas with kidnapped Africans. The religions are practiced not only in New Orleans but also in Philadelphia—consider Odunde and the National African Religion Congress which held gatherings here—and many other places. The Montrose women seem to find solace in taking the concrete steps Vodou offers when they’re faced with challenges.
“Black Candle Women” also looks at the responsibility of using one’s personal gifts well. Victoria, for example, weaves her spirituality into her therapy by understanding her patients’ needs and finding ways to help them.
Augusta, who’s lost the ability to talk, nevertheless provides a testament to the joy of living. She still has ways to express herself, find enjoyment, and to take part in the life of her family. She learns fast when Nickie shows her how to use the computer. She also dares to reckon with her past and to take her first airplane ride to put things right.
This fast-paced novel includes romance, spirituality, love, betrayal, and all the richness and struggles of family.
“Black Candle Women,” by Diane Marie Brown, (HarperCollins. Hard cover $27.99).
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