Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Conceit

Conceit by Mary Novik
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's review
Dec 11, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, 2009

17th-century England was no easy time for anyone, including Pegge, second-youngest daughter of the infamous poet and preacher John Donne. A strange girl with a slightly obsessive fascination for her father and a yearning for the kind of love he had with her mother, Ann, before her death several years before, Pegge has fixed her sights on Izaak Walton, a young fisherman the same age as her oldest sister Constance - whom Izaak loves despite Con's dismissive attitude and ambition.

From 1622 until after the London fire of 1666 that burned down John Donne's St. Paul's Cathedral where his body rested - and not in his wife's grave as he had always promised - Conceit follows Pegge's journey through life from a young girl to a mature married woman, as well as retelling the story of John and Ann. In fact, Ann tells her side of the story from her grave, with the novel switching several times from third to second person as she speaks her mind directly to her husband, who in several ways betrayed her.

The characters are very much alive, and while I know next to nothing about John Donne or Izaak Walton or Samuel Pepys (who has a small role), or anyone else in the novel, and although the author acknowledges that she "invented joyfully and freely" (you would have to employ creative licence when retelling the intimate lives of people long, long gone), the depth of detail and the quality of the prose render it authentic.

It's hard to describe the quality of the prose, and the tone and feel it conveys - it has the ability to make the story come alive, and yet seem dream-like all at once. There's a great deal of imagery and recurring themes, which hold the novel together more tightly than the actual plot does. Speaking of plot, there isn't really one. It's very character-driven, rather meandering, but lives and breathes through its artful prose. The switch in perspective and voice isn't as strange as it sounds, and it's never hard to follow. Time does jump forward quite suddenly, and I had to plot it by noting how many children Pegge had had and how old they were.

Pegge herself is a very interesting character, quite eccentric and outside the norm, which you really only become aware of when seeing her through her husband William's eyes. He loves her but she's so wrapped up in the story of her parent's all-consuming love (until Ann had too many children and miscarriages and died), that she sometimes seems to think she is Ann.

Like The Nature of Monsters, which was set after the fire, Conceit captures the morbid fascination of a people mesmerised by life and death and all the gruesome, unflattering things that are hidden behind clothes and closed doors. Donne's poetry verged on vulgar, and his sermons were preoccupied with festering flesh and sexual sins. Depravity and innocence are juxtaposed with perfect balance here, neither one tipping the scales. The characters are stripped bare, their foibles, hypocrisies, vanities and conceits laid bare, and it's sometimes hard to find a sympathetic character, especially when their motives remain obscure. Yet that in itself only adds to the vibrancy of the novel, the honesty and voyeuristic perspective.

Conceit is a remarkable novel in its achievement, in its ability to capture the greys of its characters and utilise that Dickensian quality Frye talked about, of creating and writing characters who are so far from reality that they read as more real than if they'd been written less fantastically. The prose is organic, mystical almost, and while it's no conventional book aiming to please, it's worth reading for the historical depth of detail, the exploration of one of England's most famous poets, and for a walk down a new and unfamiliar path if you're willing to let Pegge lead the way.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Mary (new) - added it

Mary Thank you so much for your comments, Shannon.
Hope you have a fabulous year in 2010!

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Hope you have a great year too Mary! (and more books to come!?!)

message 3: by Mary (new) - added it

Mary Yes, I'm working on a new novel now that's set in France in the 14th century. It's quite a shift from Conceit, but I'm really enjoying the writing. With any luck, it should be out in 2011.


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