Friday, January 29, 2010

Conceit by Mary Novik


Winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize

Longlisted for Scotiabank Giller Prize

A Quill and Quire Book of the Year

CONCEIT is the engaging story of Margaret More Donne (Pegge), the daughter of John Donne, a famed preacher and Jacobean author known for his sexual and bawdy poetry.

Set in 17th century England, the novel opens with the Great Fire of London in 1666. The story moves back and forth through the decades by way of flashbacks and the introspection of its colourful characters.

The romance between Pegge's parents, John Donne and Ann More, is immediately endearing. Ann, a young woman of means, secretly falls in love and marries John Donne in a highly unusual marriage ceremony against her father’s knowledge. When the marriage is discovered, Donne is arrested and kept in gaol until he can prove the marriage is valid. As a result, Donne is stripped of his diplomatic post and loses his means to support his wife and growing family. Later, King James granted him the post of Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and earned a comfortable living.

The love between John and Ann is splendidly portrayed. The reader gets an immediate sense of its depth and near obsessive passion. To this day, it is thought that it was his love for Ann which served as the catalyst of inspiration for his erotic writing, which he tried to downplay all his life because of his role as a religious leader.

When Ann dies in childbirth, Donne is left to raise the children on his own. Of his children, Pegge is the one who suffers the most. At a young age, she contracts small pox which forever scars her face. As she matures into womanhood, she falls in love with Isaak Walton, a fisherman and author of sorts. But the love is unrequited, for Isaak has an unrequited love problem of his own when he falls in love with Pegge’s own sister Constance who spurns him.

One of my favourite parts of the book is when Pegge becomes a writer in her own right. Her passion, like that of most authors, compels her to write to the extent she often neglects her housely duties, much to her husband’s chagrin. It brought a chuckle because I know this is something even modern-day writers can immediately associate themselves with.

There is no doubt that it is the beauty of the prose that attracted the scrutiny of so many prestigious awards. The book demands the reader’s undivided attention because of its many points of view and switches back and forth through time. The story is unusual in its details, which intrigues and absorbs the reader. It is a tale of unrequited love, of death, of obsession, and of overcoming obstacles in a search for happiness.

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