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by Mary Novik

Doubleday Canada
416 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
Posted August 31, 2007

There is an interesting success story behind Vancouver writer Mary Novik's first published novel, Conceit. Five years ago, she met two other aspiring authors, Jen Sookfong Lee and June Hutton, at a writing workshop at UBC. The trio decided to form a writing group called SPiN, making a commitment to stick together until they finished their novels. That pledge has paid off--Lee's The End of East was published by Knopf Canada this past spring, and Hutton recently signed a contract with Cormorant Books to publish Underground in early 2009.

Conceit is a powerful and passionate historical story set against the vivid backdrop of 17th-century England. The novel charts a complex relationship between the Jacobean poet and preacher John Donne and his youngest daughter Margaret, who is called Pegge. Donne was a master of the metaphysical conceit, which is essentially a poetic metaphor that combines two very different concepts into single image.

Donne published little of his verse during his life, although he did allow it to be distributed widely in manuscript form. This is probably because his early poetry was often sensual, even ribald, and as a newly reformed Anglican from a family that had been staunchly Catholic, he faced persecution and had to be careful not to run afoul of the authorities.

In 1601, at the age of 29, Donne secretly married Ann More, then just 17 years old, without the knowledge or consent of her father. Donne went to prison until he could prove that the marriage was valid, and even then, he lost his diplomatic post because of the scandal, and did not receive Ann's dowry for several years. The couple survived on the generosity of friends until he became a preacher at the insistence of King James, who eventually installed him as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in 1621.

In an age when people rarely married for love, the passion that raged between John and Ann Donne was unusual and remarkable. It is generally believed that the subject of Donne's erotic poetry was his wife. After Ann died in childbirth in 1617, he did not remarry, even though he had several children to raise and a respectable position with which to attract a dowry.

Novik's take on this story focuses on the effect Donne's passion has on Pegge. As a child she suffers a near-fatal bout of smallpox, which stunts her development so that she does not begin menstruating until she is 17 years old. Even though her body is slow in maturing, she craves the sort of passionate union her own parents enjoyed. The focus of her sexual interest is Isaak Walton, who was spurned by Pegge's oldest sister Constance but remains a protégé of her father's. However, apart from a clandestine fishing expedition during which she almost succeeds in seducing him, he remains uninterested in her. Walton eventually becomes her father's biographer as well as the author of The Compleat Angler , the still-famous treatise on fishing that he spent most of his life writing and revising.

There are some beautifully written scenes in this novel. The opening chapter, for instance, depicts the Great Fire of London which devastated the city in early September 1666. Pegge risks her life to rescue her father's marble effigy from within St Paul's cathedral as it burns down:

            "All at once, the roof splits open with a monumental crack and Pegge hurtles to safety. Six acres of roofing-lead begin to pour into the church like sauce from a demented ladle. Then the roof itself comes down, breaking through the floor that separated St Paul's from St Faith's in the crypt below.
            She knows the walls are nine feet thick in places, but nothing is certain anymore, for she has seen the earth itself catch fire this day. As she looks back into the choir, the rose window buckles, the walls bulge, the façade splinters and collapses, and the massive building-stones fly out like cannon shot."

It would be easy to present many more examples showcasing exceptional writing, but as a novel, Conceit is somewhat muddled, and this makes it drag, especially in its final quarter, by which time most of the important action seems to have already occurred. The problem is one of focus. Novik shifts the narrative back and forth in time and between characters often and without warning. In some cases, this is fine--gaining access to John and Ann's personal thoughts during their courtship makes this confusion worthwhile. As well, scenes told from the perspective of Ann's ghost after her death are a powerful choice. But too often, this disconnects the reader from the book.

Still, there is much to praise in Conceit, and fans of novels like A.S. Byatt's Possession and Tracy Chevalier's Girl With A Pearl Earring will probably enjoy Novik's perspective on one of the great figures of English literature.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.


Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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