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Review: The Maiden of All Our Desires, by Peter Manseau
Arcade, 2022. 327 pp. $27

Somewhere in midfourteenth-century England, the plague ravages the populace, as it does elsewhere in Europe. A remote convent, deliberately secluded to discourage visitors, secular or ecclesiastic, is under siege—from the threat of infection, yes, but two other forces as well. One is a snowstorm the like of which nobody can recall seeing, and which feels and looks apocalyptic. The third threat, perhaps the most serious, arrives from above in a different sense: The bishop, having heard rumors of heresy at the convent, is coming to investigate.

Nobody dares talk about the danger, and the abbess, Mother John (many of the nuns have taken masculine names, according to which religious figures inspire them), seems to deny any peril at all. But around her lurks the fear that wherever a bishop looks for heresy, he’ll find it. Moreover, he may not have far to look, for the convent, especially Mother John and those she influences most strongly, puts much faith in the sayings of the previous abbess, Ursula. For instance: “Birds see all but say nothing we can understand, which make them a perfect symbol of the divine.”

You see the problem here: Since when is a woman’s philosophy meaningful, particularly if it replaces standard (read: created by men) dogma? Mother John would object to the accusation of replacement, arguing that her beliefs coexist with those of the church. However, her outlook, though scrupulously devout, seems based on common sense — rather refreshing, if you ask me, and perhaps most modern readers would agree.

But nobody’s asking us, or anyone else, for the spirit of inquiry is precisely the problem. A good fourteenth-century Christian is supposed to obey, not think, let alone question. And the manuscripts of Ursula’s that Mother John refuses to get rid of could send her and many others to the stake.

Consequently, The Maiden of All Our Desires deals with where faith comes from, what it means, and how the earthly world gets in the way. The Department of Earthly Delights has its ambassador in Father Francis, the priest who hears the women’s confessions and performs other necessary sacraments, but who might have preferred to follow wood carving as a career, and who has known forbidden pleasures. That means he has secrets to keep and sins for which to atone.

A working water mill in Lyme Regis, UK. An ingenious mill wheel figures in the novel (courtesy Zephyris, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The novel purports to unfold over the course of one day, divided into the various prayer services–matins, lauds, prime, and so forth. Umberto Eco followed a similar framework in The Name of the Rose, though at greater length and with greater coherence. In Manseau’s novel, it’s not always immediately clear when events happen, the day of the snowstorm or in the past, but bet on the latter, and you’ll be right most often.

Back story rules, which can be difficult to sort out, but stay with it. There’s much here to enjoy. A different literary conceit, from the publisher (not the author), invokes Matrix and Hamnet, among other comparisons, which proves, once again, that the publicist’s favorite game provides the surest way to minimize in glibness each book’s essence or meaning. What else would you expect from a soundbite?

That said, having loved both those other books, I see a resemblance, though not because Matrix involves an abbess. It’s the tactile prose.

She reached out timidly to touch the crucifix, to be certain of what she saw. With two cracked, scratching fingers, her hands shaking like a bride’s, she moved down the leg from knee to ankle. The wood was cold and smooth, carved perfectly. She traced her fingers along the rounded line that joined the legs, and felt the angles that made its curve: numberless angles, like a tiny and perfect mountain range; peaks formed meticulously by a skilled hand and the finest of edges, undetectable by sight, but so apparent to the touch. She felt too the grain of the wood and the remnants of rings, the signature of the tree this once had been.

A typical passage, this. Throughout the novel, Manseau’s descriptions reveal inner life, setting, and conflict. It’s reason enough to read the book, but consider also the story, which, despite the occasionally confusing time frames, keeps you riveted and offers a satisfying ending. As for characters, Mother John and Ursula come through, but I would have liked more differentiation among the nuns, other than their petty rivalries.

Further, it’s curious how Father Francis commands an outsize presence in this community of women, though perhaps that results from the necessities of plot and the importance to it of earthly desire. Nevertheless, Manseau, curator of religion at the Smithsonian Institution, knows his ground thoroughly and has written a thought-provoking, engaging, and entertaining novel.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.