By Mary Novik. Doubleday Canada, 402 pp, $29.95, hardcover.
Mary Novik's Conceit is a tour de force: an immensely accomplished trip back in time that is full of the sights, sounds, and smells of 1666 London. More particularly, it takes us into the home of clergyman and poet John Donne, who is slowly passing away, amid the clatter and cackle of his several daughters and the memory of his late wife, Ann More. She is a ghostly presence throughout, speaking to us from the sepulchre where she was laid after dying in childbirth. More fleshly impact is made by Donne's daughter Pegge, a feisty teen eager to become a woman who is equally desirous of her father's approval and attention.
Novik set the stage for complexity, and delivers. Her novel courses through the bustling city, the realm of ghosts, and the various landscapes of attraction; it encompasses theological debate, angling lore, and architecture; and it's strewn with historical figures, such as Izaak Walton, Christopher Wren, and Samuel Pepys. Novik has much to say about the complicated love of daughters for fathers, and Conceit's penultimate scene, in which Pegge eases Donne into death, is both achingly tender and shockingly suggestive of a morbid and incestuous passion: "All at once the ligature around your heart broke open in a glorious haemorrhaging flood and you were rampant with remembered love, bartering your immortal spirit for one more minute in a woman's arms," Pegge recalls. "My mother drove me forward, but oh! I was willing."
It takes a long time–almost 400 pages–to get to this moment, however. For all of Novik's erudition, for all her descriptive flair and painstaking research, Conceit moves forward slowly, at times losing itself in digressions that might inform our understanding of Donne's time but do not materially advance the plot. More problematically, it's difficult to find the heart of this story: why did Novik feel so compelled by Donne and his family, and what secrets of her own lie beneath the baroque complexity of her language?
Conceit was longlisted for the 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and it's easy to see why: it's well made, erudite, and very "literary" in its concerns. But it didn't make the final cut–perhaps because it offers too little reason to care.
Mary Novik appears at the Vancouver International Writers Festival on October 20 at 10:30 a.m., at Festival House (1398 Cartwright Street).