[Catapult; 2023]

The Forbidden Territory of a Terrifying Woman whisks us into its mysterious ecological horrors by opening its story with a naked woman, mud-splattered, standing in marsh reeds off the side of the road. Ada, the novel’s protagonist, tells her husband to pull over. She snags her son’s blanket from the backseat and searches for the naked woman to help her. But the woman vanishes. Soon after, Ada does too.

Lynch’s novel examines our collapsing world, riddled with forest fires, war, human trafficking, cyber espionage, racism, monstrous heat waves and cold fronts, fracking, and so on. Lynch does not shy away from the writhing mass of fear in news cycles, social media timelines, articles, and even text threads between friends. What future is the world growing into? What horrible event will happen next? In Lynch’s world, the newest global phenomenon is the missing mothers. Disappearing without signs of struggle, leaving behind their partners, children, and belongings, hundreds of mothers cannot be found. One of these is Ada, wife to Danny and mother to six-year-old Gilles. Following Ada in Ann Arbor, Michigan, we are positioned in the domestic modern day, a place of stability threatened by violence, overwhelmingly tragic world events, and the realization that the future is unstable, unsafe, likely uninhabitable for future generations.

Lynch’s novel is split into three parts that move through the beginning, middle, and end of fall, each consisting of micro-chapters. Some of these chapters are a paragraph long, other several pages. While Ada is missing, the book is told from Danny’s point of view, but promptly switches back to Ada once she returns home. Through the progression of autumn and a few flashbacks, the book takes readers to Detroit, Montreal, New York, and Greece—each of these places afflicted with Ada’s large-scale anxieties, such as economic struggle, racism, violation, litter, and landfills. But for Ada, they’re also touched by romance, family, and most magically, by her curious son. Ada is bisected by these worlds, living in both fear and fulfillment. Ann Arbor is where Ada crafts puppets with her son, cooks dinners for her family, and goes on nightly walks in the Eberwhite Woods, a small forest behind Gilles’s elementary school. But Ada feels the urge to tell others, “Not from here! . . . I’m really, really not from here.”

At first, Ada is a mother reading about mothers. She tracks the disappearances of Raven Wallace and Pamela Forrest, who live nearby. Ada is a mother worried for her son’s future. How does a mother raise a generation teetering on the edge of collapse? Ada is upset by the vanishings and sends her husband links to articles on them, though he doesn’t engage with her concern. Much of Ada’s relationship with Danny seems to function on that level: Ada expresses her fear of the world demolishing itself and Danny doesn’t listen. Ada says, “Wait. Who am I talking to? . . . You literally aren’t hearing a word I’m saying. Like not even hearing.” But Ada stifles herself: “But he was busy. Didn’t she see that? He was trying to insure something, to protect something, some part of their lives.” Ada often ruminates over her agitation and stress, then finds ways to dismiss them.

Despite the natural world’s active state of dying, Ada feels most centered in its physicality. But the line between Ada and Nature is gradually blurred. She finds herself drawn to the Eberwhite Woods more and more. Before she goes missing, Ada lays in a greenbelt by her workplace, “forgetting her role, freed of it, a worm-woman among worm-women, or a woman wishing to be worthy of worm-women, underground survivors of a ravaged planet.” Lynch clues us into a fascinating, haunting idea—the “Mother Earth” is not so much a mother in this story. Before Ada’s disappearance, she shares a story about Artemis, Greek goddess of hunt and fertility and wilderness—a goddess who is “particularly hard on women.” The book’s title arrives from Ada’s description of Artemis and a nightmare she had about the goddess, where Ada had to submit to Artemis after entering her domain without permission. Here, the divine mother figure is more violent, aggressive, possessive, one who would “exact that kind of revenge, total sacrifice, in return for some trespass.”

When Ada vanishes, her household falls into disarray. Danny doesn’t know how to mother, how to respond to Gilles’s needs, curiosities, or panic. He relies on a community—Ada’s father, mother, stepmother, and their friends Suzie and Ellen—to assist in caring for Gilles as Danny tries to untangle the mystery of Ada’s disappearance. Lynch’s temporal fluidity gives us access to an affair Ada had, illuminating the power dynamics and fractured trust of Ada and Danny’s marriage. “[Danny] was shameless. He snooped into everything . . . The compulsion seemed to come from an attempt to possess something by way of reading something: [Ada’s] messages; her movements, her eyes.” Lynch’s snapshots of the past map new topographies of both Danny and Ada, though Danny is most revealed here, as these moments of discord are where his mind heads when Ada is missing.

The CIA and a related department called Human Services and Critical Incident Response, headed by agent Efua Asemota, question Danny about Ada. “In this event, the women are all mothers. And they seem to have dropped what they were doing and walked away,” Asemota explains to Danny. The cases of missing mothers are widespread and rapidly increasing. Theories for this phenomenon range from kidnapping to cult involvement to internet indoctrination to mass dissociation. Asemota asks Danny what Ada was thinking about before she went missing, but he can’t articulate anything. He can’t pinpoint Ada’s fears, despite her voicing them before vanishing.  

Danny laments his wife’s absence, but he also grows irritated and resentful. He considers the idea that Ada abandoned him and Gilles. As more mothers go missing, hatred for them boils in America, where students, internet trolls, and senators believe the mothers are “betraying their children.” But Ada does return. With no idea where she went, how long she was gone, or even that she left at all, she returns after thirteen days covered in mud, grime, and the foul stench of earthy rot. She can’t understand her husband’s hurt or anger. The first thing she does is make breakfast and kiss her son.

It’s unclear what happened to the mothers; it’s unclear what they did in their tranced, “fugue state” bodies, where their minds went, what controlled them, and what compelled them to leave in the first place. Every mother has a different story. For Ada, the experience was a transformation, a “morphing into trees.” But the mothers’ stories are not truly listened to. They’re rationalized. Diagnosed. Molded by podcasters, journalists, BBC documentaries, and news segments into logical, compelling narratives. Ada thinks, “[Their] questions anticipated answers that seemed obvious and reasonable in some way. They were . . .  answers that implied that the thing that was happening had to do with the world itself.” The idea of the mother continues to be more image than person. The mothers start as a symbol of caregiving and birth; the idea of a stable household rests on the mother. But then, the mothers become symbols for the effects of societal and environmental collapse. They become figures of abandonment as they vanish. The mothers aren’t seen as people having undergone trauma, but icons for the world’s decline, or villains who deserted their children. Lynch builds intrigue as to what happened to the missing mothers, but I think her larger question is why we are inclined to explain away these women’s experiences. Why do we need them to make sense? Ada feels a need to make sense of her story for her husband. She, the mother, the wife, feels obligated to comfort the world troubled by her disappearance.

Again, Lynch’s rejection of “Mother Nature” is important. Upon Ada’s return, she must resume being a mother. Must meet Danny’s and Gilles’s needs, return to work, get back on the domestic track, so to speak. But she no longer has solace from the earth, either. Running in the forest with Gilles feels “almost like being swallowed,” a kind of “magnetic pull” that rips away her sense of self, reminiscent of her discussion on Artemis, where one must totally sacrifice oneself for the goddess. There is no mother-to-mother kindness. Ada feels like the trees and moss and roots are enticing her back into absence. She is still giving up herself for something larger. Even though this force isn’t tangible, or “provable,” it beckons Ada, but she ultimately tries to resist it for her family.

The tension in The Forbidden Territory of a Terrifying Woman is lingering, looming, but never reaches a grand reveal. Much like the ongoing, global, multilevel destruction that pervades the earth, the kind we’re desensitized to through doom-scrolling, Ada and the mothers’ experiences become another headline on the news. The readers aren’t granted an explanation. Lynch masterfully embeds the book’s stress in the internal and external dialogue. The subtext in Ada and Danny’s arguments, the insensitive questions from a coworker, Ada’s eventual admission that, “I feel like I need to be figuring out the mystery of all this for everyone else’s sake, even though I’d rather not think about it at all.” These smaller, nuanced moments unravel the disturbing nature of the story. Lynch understands the power of a single line, a single phrase passed from one survivor to another, from husband to wife, and from mother to child.

Much is at play in The Forbidden Territory of a Terrifying Woman. Is an earthly, supernatural presence responsible for the mothers’ disappearances? Are their departures products of a harmful internet ideology? Or a mass dissociation, a need to escape the fears they hold for a world that may not survive for their children? Lynch guides us through Ada’s struggle to discern what happened, but also how she feels changed for the better. With moments reminiscent of Annihilation (2018), Gone Girl (2014), and The Leftovers (2014), Lynch weaves a tapestry of horror and mystery. She pushes us to reconsider what a mother is, could be, and what we think a mother should be in service to ourselves.

Bri Gonzalez is an MFA candidate and instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder. Their work can be found or forthcoming in Talon Review, ERGI Press’ Trickster Anthology, Juke Joint, Bear Creek Gazette, Janus Literary, and more. She serves as Poetry Editor for TIMBER and plays an inordinate amount of D&D. Check Bri out at bgwriting.org or @bg_writing on Twitter.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.