Holy Woman is a book of two halves, before and after. The “before” sections recount Louise Omer’s time within a Christian community in Australia, one she entered as an impressionable teenager and exited through divorce. The “after” sections, which purport to be the book’s main thrust and purpose, concern Omer’s pilgrimage in search of a reconciliation between modern feminism and androcentric religions.
Although admirable, these are hard to get on board with. Her arguments are repetitive, often basic to the point of banality, and are sometimes contradictory. The incredulity she claims of her former self is difficult to believe. While depicting her church as modern, forward-thinking and, for want of a better term, “woke”, she also says: “I’d never considered my religion’s white supremacy, never recognized the violence Christianity had rained down upon bodies of color by excluding them from the image of God.”
And: “I’d thought Christianity ‘fell out of the sky’. That it had been ordained and delivered by the Supreme Being, pure from human influence. It was baffling to consider that religions might be a response to a people’s environment and social conditions.”
Really? Ultimately, these attempts to find a feminist path through religion fizzle out to not much of a conclusion, or not one that couldn’t have been predicted from the opening pages (or even the blurb). Her attempts at inclusivity of all possible perspectives in her mission are noble, but also wearisome. Omer doesn’t have the credentials to write a truly comprehensive academic study, and so skirts a “bloggy” solipsistic mundanity when she attempts to do so.
When Omer gets personal, in the “before” sections, her narrative powers shine through. Here her writing is riveting and genuinely insightful. Her descriptions of herself as a teenager who fell into religion as both a way to feel normal and to feel exceptional, and, most stunningly, the intricacies of her marriage, are astonishingly good passages. In portraying the subtle coercive control she experienced in that marriage, Omer reveals her natural knack for storytelling: “If I spoke too much, became excited, did something foolish, I received an offhand comment, or my name hissed like a teacher catching a child stealing a forbidden sweet.”
Holy Woman is worth reading for these sections alone, I only wish Omer had felt sufficiently confident to leave the book there.
Lucy Sweeney Byrne is the author of Paris Syndrome (Banshee Press)