W. Paul Anderson - An epic novel of genius and obsession — apocalyptic, lyrical and erotically charged. Spanning three centuries and two cultures, Hunger’s Brides brings to vivid life the greatest Spanish poet of her time, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

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W. Paul Anderson, Hunger’s Brides: A Novel of the Baroque, Carroll & Graf, 2005.
read it at Google Books






An epic novel of genius and obsession — apocalyptic, lyrical and erotically charged. Spanning three centuries and two cultures, Hunger’s Brides brings to vivid life the greatest Spanish poet of her time, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and plumbs a mystery that has intrigued writers as diverse as Robert Graves, Diane Ackerman, Eduardo Galeano and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. Why did a writer of such gifts silence herself?
At the time of her death in 1695, Juana Inés de la Cruz was arguably the greatest writer working in any European tongue, yet she had never set foot in Europe. Instead she was born among the descendants of the Aztec empire, in the shadow of the mountain pass Cortés and his troops descended on their advance to Montezuma’s capital. A child prodigy from a barbarous wilderness, her beauty and wit provoked a sensation at the viceregal court in Mexico City. But at the age of nineteen, still a favourite of the court, Juana entered a convent, and from that point her life unfolded between the mystery of her sudden flight from palace to cloister, and the enigma of her final vow of silence, signed in blood. After a quarter-century of graceful, often sensuous poetry, plays and theological argument, Sor Juana chose silence, which she maintained until she died of plague at the age of forty-five.
Drawing on chronicles of the conquest and histories of the Inquisition, myth cycles and archeological studies, ancient poetry and early Spanish accounts of blood sacrifice, Hunger’s Brides is a mammoth work of inspired historical fiction framed in a contemporary mystery. In the dead of a Calgary winter night, a man escapes from an apartment in which a young woman lies bleeding — in his arms he clutches a box he has found on her table addressed to him. He is Donald Gregory, a once-respected, now-disgraced, academic. She is Beulah Limosneros, one of his students, and for a brief time his lover. Brilliant, erratic, voracious, she had disappeared two years earlier in Mexico, following the thread of her growing obsession with Sor Juana. Over the ensuing days and weeks, as a police investigation closes in around him, Gregory pieces together the contents of the box she has left him: a poetic journal of her travel in Mexico, diaries, research notes, unposted letters, and a strange manuscript — part biography, part novel — on Sor Juana.
Hunger’s Brides is a dramatic unveiling of three intimate journeys: a man’s forced march to self-knowledge, a great poet’s withdrawal from the world, and a profane mystic’s pilgrimage into modern Mexico, in which the bones of the past constantly poke through a present built on the ruins of the vanquished.

Excerpt from Hunger’s Brides
“From the moment I was first illuminated by the light of reason, my inclination toward letters has been so vehement that not even the admonitions of others . . . nor my own meditations have been sufficient to cause me to forswear this natural impulse that God placed in me . . . that inclination exploded in me like gunpowder. . . .”
—Sor Juana, in a letter of self-defence written to a bishop in 1691, just before she took a vow of silence




A nearly 1,500-page novel that was 12 years in the making deserves consideration, even though in this instance, its complex central story could have been told in 500 pages. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz died of the plague in Mexico in 1695, and for the next two centuries her work was rarely referenced or read. Her poems, confessions and life story were rediscovered in the 20th century, most notably by Mexican poet Octavio Paz. In Anderson's elephantine debut novel, Sor Juana's story is told through the testimony of her "secretary," Antonia Mora (her intellectual equal), Carlos Sigüenza y Gongora (a rival and a suitor), her confessor, Father Núñez (an enemy), and Sor Juana herself. We follow her fortunes from her illegitimate birth, through her inability to find success as a poet and scholar (due both to her gender and the authoritarian nature of colonial Mexican society), her taking of the veil and-finally-her downfall. As if distrusting his material, however, Anderson encloses Sor Juana's story within a contemporary tale focused on Beulah Limosneros, a brilliant but unstable student of Sor Juana's writing who begins an affair with Donald Gregory, her married English professor. With Gregory, Beulah re-enacts the scorned woman role à la Fatal Attraction with a passive-aggressive twist. Beulah keeps a journal that is a mixture of sophomoric beat poetry and mystical descriptions of sex. She is the embodiment of present day angst: there are food issues, childhood abuse, low self-esteem. There are hundreds too many pages of her interior life. The conjunction of Limosneros's story and Sor Juana's is mutually weakening. Still, the central narration is definitely worth following, particularly for its version of the inevitable conflict between beauty, intellect and government power. Unfortunately, the framing story is ludicrous; this is no Pale Fire. Sor Juana's translated verse doesn't jump out (despite some translations by Paz), but her confession does, as does the way Anderson conveys the gradual closing in of forces beyond her control, reminiscent of Akhmatova's confrontations with Stalin. - Publishers Weekly


None of the above. This is a book in which 17th-century Jesuits rebuke themselves in the stressful italics of Robert Ludlum novels ("Are you now to meet with your greatest failure just when it matters most?") and privily work on nonsensical puns ("She would not know a Gnostic union from a nauseous onion"). You can tell the protagonists are Spanish because they talk in Spanish: "This single book is why, en mi opinión, the many generations of us who followed Cortes have not raised a single monument to him." Anderson is keen for his readers not to miss any of his tricks, even if that does mean diluting the effect to explain things to smaller intellects than his own.
One might think that narrating a long prose fiction in the voice of a historically documented poet might give a writer a moment's pause. Not Anderson, who rises gamely to the occasion. Sor Juana was very intelligent; we can tell, because we get a run-down on the contents of her library every few pages and she is always talking about Thucydides and Herodotus. She was a poet; we can tell, because she thinks in metaphors: "The road looked like a big ball of twine... to roll over it was to grapple with an unseen wrestler... stunning, like being tossed in a bag." Someone is speaking: the phrase "tripped off his tongue like a stone worn smooth from a very long journey in one's shoe".
Sor Juana is the central figure, but Hunger's Brides has two framing characters as well. There is Beulah, a troubled '90s post-doc who may or may not have written the entire book herself, Sor Juana bits included (postmodernism innit), and there is Dr Gregory, her ponytailed ex-tutor and ex-lover who may have tried to do away with her before the book starts. Dr Gregory is our editor (postmodernism innit), and has assembled Hunger's Brides from a mass of Beulah's jottings; so the reader is delighted with lengthy samplings from her diaries as she heads off on the trail of Sor Juana. Not so Gregory, who comments from his log cabin that Beulah has "a madness for synthesis unchecked by the slightest analytical scruple".
You don't say, Doc. "Single out navel and soft netherfolds of interthigh for special care. Tender hinterland," Beulah writes, having a wash. She goes for a walk: "Let us stroll now you and I, scrawl doubt across the neon sky like a pornqueen bowdlerised in a stable." Anderson loves this febrile reJoyceing register, halfway between Stephen Dedalus and Jerry Springer, and as Beulah slides into madness he dishes up more and more of it. The orotund wittering of Sor Juana comes to seem rather a relief.
After 100 pages of drivel like this, even the best-intentioned reader is looking for someone to blame. Where were the editors while this man was writing? But the typos and solecisms - "ran out steam", Dafoe for Defoe, regazza for ragazza - pop up in the most turgid passages, suggesting that everyone but the author has just been skipping the dense-looking bits. So the buck stops, as it must, with Anderson.
Not that it'll make a difference. An uncracked copy of this stillborn behemoth will probably become the autumn's most fashionable literary accessory, and Anderson's round-the-world jaunts will be covered for years to come. Baroque on. - Tim Martin                      


"Hunger's Brides," Paul Anderson's debut novel, is certain to be one of the biggest books of the fall. The question is how many readers will want to do the heavy lifting required to read it.
At 1,360 pages (not counting 8 pages of titles and contents at the beginning of the book and 8 blank pages at the end, presumably added for production reasons) the book, quite simply, is massive. It weighs 4 pounds, 9 ounces, equivalent to two and a half copies of "The Da Vinci Code," and it is thicker than Verizon's Manhattan telephone directory (either the white or yellow pages).
"The size implies a certain audacity, especially since we are living in the age of the sound bite," said Philip Turner, the editor in chief of Carroll & Graf Publishers, which will release the book on Sept. 14. "But we figured, why not publish the apotheosis of the big novel?"
"Hunger's Brides" puts other behemoths to shame, including Michel Faber's "Crimson Petal and the White," (848 pages, 3 pounds); Neal Stephenson's "Quicksilver" (944 pages, 3.3 pounds) and the recent reigning champ, Vikram Seth's "Suitable Boy" (1,349 pages, 4.1 pounds).
The plot of "Hunger's Brides" revolves around Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th-century Mexican poet and nun whose vow of silence at the age of 40 was signed in her own blood. Her life and work have inspired writings by Octavio Paz, Robert Graves and Diane Ackerman.
But the book is more -- much, much more -- than an extended piece of historical fiction. It is also the story of Beulah Limosneros, a graduate student who immerses herself in the study of Sor Juana, and Donald Gregory, her professor and a serial adulterer. And in addition to narrative fiction, it is told in the form of poetry, dramatic plays, letters and notes in the margins.
"It is an elaborately beautiful, intricately baroque game that has at its center this mystery about Sor Juana's silence," said Anne Collins, the publisher of Random House Canada, which published the book last fall. Ms. Collins who said she fell in love with Mr. Anderson's writing in 1999 after reading a 50-page sample from the draft of the novel, in which he wrote lyrical passages in four distinct voices.
"Not many first-time novelists have even a clue how to do that," she said. "He totally hooked me."
When Mr. Anderson -- a Calgary, Alberta, resident, who worked on the book for 12 years -- submitted his 1,000-page manuscript, Ms. Collins had one piece of advice for him: Make it longer.
"What was missing was something that I knew he already knew was missing," Ms. Collins explained -- the leap into what, from her childhood or whenever, haunted Sor Juana and eventually forced her into her vow of silence. "I told him, 'You can't not go there.' And that's how it got longer."
Mr. Turner, the American publisher, said that other than making minor changes, he never considered re-editing the book or trying to shorten it. "Because of the sumptuousness of the package -- this is a gorgeous piece of typesetting -- we weren't inclined to alter it," he said.
"Hunger's Brides" has received attention for more than just its girth. After generally good reviews, the book won the top prize for literary fiction at the Alberta Book Awards. Random House Canada sold its entire first press run of 5,000 copies and has gone back to press.
Carroll & Graf has printed 10,000 copies, and the book received starred reviews in Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews and is on the September recommended list of BookSense, a trade group representing independent bookstores.
But there is no escaping its size, which evidently has presented problems for the book's printers as well as its readers. (One copy arrived at this newspaper with the book's pages bound upside down within the cover.) To aid readers, the author himself has contributed some helpful hints. The book's elaborate Web site (www.hungersbrides.com) features a slide show of "safe reading positions."
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Everyone knows Randall Jarrell’s definition of a novel (“…a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it…”), which he wrote in his extraordinary review of Christina Stead’s wild and amazingly miserable masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children. Frequently, this quote is used to discuss the relative merits of shorter books as compared to longer books. The most perfect novels I know tend to be short of length, like Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (possibly more of a novella, that one). The longer a book, the more writers are tempted to include mischief, to be undisciplined and a bit muddled. Hence Jarrell’s description, voiced in a vociferous defense of a novel that is both very messy and very, very good. Some of the book’s faults “are the faults a large enough, live enough thing naturally has,” he wrote. Me, personally, I prefer the messy, long and ambitious book to the short and disciplined one. I find it hard to overlook lapses and faults in a novel when it barely exceeds 150 pages, but a long book powered by literary ambition is much easier to forgive for its flaws and problems. Most of my favorite books are so-called doorstoppers, from Gaddis’ The Recognitions to A Glastonbury Romance. Not all attempts at voluminous ambition are as successful as those three, and yet I am always drawn to the big and alive books. Adam Levin’s gargantuan novel of Jewish prophecy and rebellion The Instructions was one of my favorite novels published that year and I still regret never having reviewed it. It’s very flawed, clearly longer than it should have been but ultimately, it’s precisely its length and implied scope and vision that makes that book such a joy to read. Even in genre fiction, size is a potent argument for me. Similarly, if I was to make a list of all the things wrong with Paul Anderson’s 1400 page behemoth Hunger’s Brides, it would far exceed the usual length of my reviews.
Having finished the book 1 ½ times I am not even entirely sure he’s a very good writer, but every time I browse the book I am itching to reread it. There’s just so much of it, and that statement exceeds questions of length and weight (I believe it’s much heavier than other books of similar length I own; this is a weapon, not a book!). There’s a novel-within-a-novel, a diary-within-a-diary, there are footnotes that are not instructive but integral to the story, there’s a film script, there’s poetry, there are scholarly discussions and there are, finally, translations from the work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. And despite all of this potentially overwhelming surfeit of material and the years and years of complex work that have gone into the book, the author has managed to present us with not one, not two, but three gripping narratives. There’s a contemporary novel of detection and mystery, there is the narrative of a young student’s discovery of the importance of Sor Juana’s work and thinking for her own life and that of other women, and finally, in the center of the book, there’s the story of the stubborn and brilliant Mexican nun herself who, despite many difficulties, wrote poetry, prose and theology at a time when women were not supposed to be participating in the public conversation. Through this story, we are offered an intense view of 17th century Mexico, but through the other layers of the book, we can see how Sor Juana’s work and story reverberates through the centuries. And finally, there are pages and paged of footnotes, carefully detailing scholarship and reception of Sor Juana, footnotes that interrogate the narrative, but also contextualize it within the broader and very colorful literary history of Sor Juana. Not all of this is a success. There’s so much that annoys me about this book, and so much that isn’t fully achieved, and yet – it’s a stupendous achievement to put all of this into a book and have it be so eminently readable. If you have the time, go buy a copy and then read it. Take it to the beach.
The book itself, as I intimated earlier, is structured like an onion, stories wrapped in stories, wrapped in stories. The basic conceit of Hunger’s Brides is that it’s a collection of edited, narrated and footnoted documents found and assembled by Donald Gregory, college professor, adulterer and all around swell human being. The documents he found are the diary and manuscript of Beulah Limosneros (pronounced “BYOOlah LeemosNEHRos” as we learn in the book). He assembles and presents it as a kind of defense in the case of her disappearance, because as it turns out, they were lovers once and he may or may not have had a hand in her disappearance. Both Gregory and Beulah are a bit obnoxious in their own way, but the college professor’s overbearing style and manner surely takes the cake. Paul Anderson takes care to carefully balance a characterization of Gregory through his words and style with the task of giving us basic information about the situation. Gregory may be an unreliable narrator, but he is all we have – and that extends to the task of factchecking Beulah’s documents. The fact is, Gregory is also the one who wrote the footnotes at the back which both enlighten us as to other literature on the topic, and explain certain allusions and other opaque passages to us, as well as give us additional information about Gregory’s relationship to Beulah. Paul Anderson did 12 years of research on this book and he does not wear his research lightly – but he made the choice of letting his two protagonists carry the burden of being know-it-alls with a flowery diction and a dire need for editorial toughness. Anderson does an excellent job of controlling both his research as well as his characters, using the frequent infodumps and research humblebrags for great literary effect. With their help, he constructs two characters who are very dissimilar, but united in their obsession for scholarship, Sor Juana and the life of Beulah Limosneros.
The major source of research for Beulah is Octavio Paz’s magnificent book on the Mexican poet. If you want solid information on her, that’s the book you should read, or grab one of the many translations that are available. Hunger’s Brides is not interested in giving you the truth, if by “truth” we mean historically accurate and verifiable truth. Early in the book, Gregory offers us a disquisition on literary liars, by which he means novelists who have written books on a historical topic and who were less than truthful. He puts particular emphasis on noted teutonic trickster Karl May and concludes “if you want to better understand the true, study the liar.” I will say that the biography of Sor Juana is not a complete fabrication. Much of it dovetails nicely with what I read from Paz and some other sources, but Beulah, who is the ‘author’ of the story of Sor Juana, embellishes and, more importantly, fills gaps in the fairly spotty historical record. Her method is empathy, and part of her research involves an intense trip to Mexico. The journal that she keeps during that trip, before and after, is the second layer of the onion. Her writing is curiously purple, riddled with mixed metaphors and an entirely authentic intensity as you’d expect from a young grad student with very strong personal convictions. The first time we meet her is when she walks up to Prof. Gregory after a class and confronts him with weaknesses in his syllabus. He is attracted to this young student who doesn’t walk out but “sways out of the room”, and who has also read “everything [he] published”. Feeling flattered and sexually stimulated, Gregory quickly turns into the kind of professor readers remember from books by Roth, Updike or Coetzee and like those writers, the story quickly develops overtones of a male/female struggle for power. Paul Anderson brilliantly draws on these archetypes in order to interrogate some of their underlying assumptions. The figure and example of Sor Juana and the nuns who preceded her help him destabilize some well worn binaries of the campus novel.
The main contrast is the one of the young, passionate and nubile woman, and the old, rational and angry professor. Anderson has his protagonist grouse about his “horror of magical realism” and recounts his preference to “approach[ing] Beulah’s story […] scientifically, methodically”. This contrast, which we know even today as beig put forth by some writers on gender was particularly important in Sor Juana’s time, especially for a woman pursuing the kind of writing and influence she did. As Grace Jantzen points out, “Emphasis on the intellect marginalised women because they were considered to be ‘misbegotten males’, deficient alike in intellect and in morality.” Jantzen and Stacey Schlau point out how this emphasis on “charismatic” women, as contrasted with the more deliberate and intelligent men, served to put female theologies under constant threat. At a first glance, Hunger’s Bride’s writing seems to support rather than undermine such mindsets, as Gregory’s framing story and footnotes appear to be much more openly intellectual than Beulah’s documents, many of whom are emotional, empathetic searches for the real Sor Juana. Since much of the book’s excitement comes from following her mind down those winding roads, I can hardly detail them here, but what’s interesting is that Anderson takes care to constantly nudge us away from the binary view of Beulah as the natural, empathetic one and Gregory as the rational intellectual. Not only is Gregory’s comment constantly fraught with paranoia, self-love and fear, as he himself is trying to evade prosecution and find out what happened to Beulah; more, Beulah herself is frequently led to situations where she has to acknowledge the limits of her academic conception of reading and readers, and the ensuing economic assumptions. One particular striking encounter is the one with her guide through the mexican wilderness, Xochitl and her daughter. At one point, early in the book, she exclaims, in shock “You read books?” That’s not far from Saul Bellow and the Zulus, and yet she is presented to us as an enlightened young woman, well skilled in the theories of the day. This serves us to understand how these oppositions are not just entrenched, but also unstable and can shift. One is reminded of the poverty of today’s identity-focused discussions (in contrast to, say, theories by Foucault or Cassirer).
Moreover, it’s not as easy as seeing the diary as an inferior form of writing as compared to Gregory’s footnotes and commentary. The choice of diary as the form in which we encounter Beulah’s writing is actually quite inspired. As Felicity Nussbaum points out, “[women’s] journals, diaries and fragments of autobiographies may be devices to construct, imagine and declare an identity [and they] undermine ideologies of recovering and representing reality.” and Gillian Ahlgren states that, while it eventually came to be a liability, initially, the role of laywomen in charismatic, empathetic, experience-based discourses was a method to escape fixed roles. Hunger’s Brides is subtitled “A Novel of the Baroque” and the notion of the Baroque is rather helpful in understanding the way this novel works. Through Beulah’s diary and her story/novel of Sor Juana’s life, notions of truth and perception are jumbled. I think the term of the Baroque as used by Deleuze, with the figure of ‘the fold’ that reverses and confuses ideas of interiority and exteriority is apropos here. Sor Juana herself, we learn in Stephanie Merrim’s book on the poet, offered a very complex disquisition on knowledge and Holy Ignorance in a poem that’s sadly not in my selection of her work. Paz’ elegant and very learned book on Sor Juana has done much to emphasize the depth of her engagement with tradition and myth and literature, but he occasionally falls prey to the same condescension that many students of Sor Juana’s work have brought to the table. Her autodidacticism has kept many people from truly valuing her achievement, as Stephanie Merrim’s monumental study, which Anderson surely knew when writing his book, points out in exhaustive detail. There is a sense in Hunger’s Brides of us seeing this bias in Gregory’s writing and in Beulah’s strides towards knowledge and truth. At the same time, the woman we get to know in the diaries is not a genius, and I can’t help but feel as if Paul Anderson’s emotional protagonist Beulah is a strange foil to use in a discussion of the undeniably brilliant Sor Juana.
Because Sor Juana’s life and work really engages our ideas of feminity and writing, and because Anderson’s book is such an overwhelming grab-bag of ideas, locales, genres and characters, much of it seems to fit in one way or another. And this is not an exercise in guessing intentions, but we know from many sources like Frank Warnke’s lovely book on the Baroque that the theater, both as a genre as well as a trope and metaphor, were very important during that time. Is this enough to see the film script at the end as a clever commentary on, to quote Warnke, “the concern with the illusory quality of experience which runs obsessively through the literature of the first two-thirds of the 17th century”? Or is that just postmodern exuberance and a feeling of just trying things out? Reading the book and rereading it, I sometimes feel like it’s more the latter. Hunger’s Brides offers us a lot of ideas – but it also offers us a lot of space to spread those ideas. There’s a distinct lack of writerly and editorial discipline, and it’s not like in the similarly flawed (but more engaging) The Instructions, where the leisurely speed at least corresponds to the chosen genre. Anderson is clearly not on Sor Juana’s level, and the open ended, mystical way he deals with historical knowledge indicates that he knows this -but it still makes for a slightly awkward reading experience. I will say this. I don’t know that I would instantly grab whatever next book Paul Anderson publishes, but with all its flaws, Hunger’s Brides is a unique book, a large book by a writer with not quite that large a literary talent. Its faults don’t grate, however. They feed into the book, they add to its characters and they add to the overall fascination that book has with Sor Juana, with history, and with the quest of writing about yourself and about history. In a way, it throws up its hands about history, especially the buried, neglected and abused history of women in a way that reminds one of Absalom, Absalom: “It’s just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that’s it: they don’t explain and we are not supposed to know.” Go read this book. It’s a ton of fun. It really is.
If you, however, attempt to purchase the book, make sure to get the right one. The author and publisher have also published a second book that contains just one of the many narratives of the book. The two book covers are very similar, but the second version is a 750 page abbreviation, almost half the length of the original book. Going by the title of Sor Juana or the Breath of Heaven: The Essential Story from the Epic Hunger’s Brides, it contains the novel-within-a-novel about Sor Juana, but, judging from the summary, also portions relating to the present day. It’s not quite as radical an excision as The Whalestoe Letters, the very slim book of mother-son letters drawn from the larger and more difficult novel House of Leaves, but it clearly aims to present a “readable” version of the original novel. So be careful. The book’s existence itself is a bit of a puzzle to me since the original novel is not a difficult read, and is, overall, exciting and often even spellbinding. I understand the issue of length, but I don’t think the reading public is much more reticent to buyy into a 1300 page novel than into a 750 page novel. Danielewski’s Whalestoe Letters are a mere 80 pages, a significant enough difference that its excision and separate publication makes financial sense. And lastly, I take issue with the idea that there is an “essental story” to be cut from the larger body of Hunger’s Brides. The book itself, repeatedly, undertakes a defense of the baroque, the luxuriant, large project as contrasted to Puritan simplicity and discipline. It’s not just over-bordering richness, it’s also using the baroque as a figure to express larger aesthetic concerns with meaning beyond what’s easily put into words. The abbreviated book is an odd betrayal of the original novel that I am personally not convinced translates into significantly better sales. - shigekuni.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/w-paul-anderson-hungers-brides/


By the midway point of Hunger’s Brides’ almost 1,400 pages, the suspense is starting to build, not merely at a narrative level – what are the dark secrets of poet Sor Juana’s childhood? how will she survive the Mexican Inquisition? – but at the level of the novel itself. Would first-time novelist Paul Anderson really be able to pull it off, or would the impressive edifice he had constructed come crashing down in the last 100 pages (as so many books do)? Would we be forced to turn to someone like Samuel Johnson to summarize the experience, something along the lines of “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all”?
Dr. Johnson can rest in peace: Hunger’s Brides, one of the biggest gambles in recent Canadian publishing, is one of the most remarkable books in recent memory.
At its most basic, Hunger’s Brides is a multifaceted account of the life of the 17th-century Mexican poet and nun Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. A child prodigy who charmed the Mexican court and became known as one of the finest poets in Christendom before entering a convent at age 19, Sor Juana (whose life has been chronicled previously, most notably by Octavio Paz) became a target of the Mexican Inquisition later in her life, and was tried for heresy only a year prior to her death.
This account of Sor Juana’s life is told from the papers of Beulah Limosneros, a graduate student who, in the early 1990s, develops an unsettling attachment to the poet, and who disappears into Mexico to retrace her life. Those papers, which include the Sor Juana narrative and a series of disturbing journals, are organized and edited by Don Gregory, Limosneros’s former adviser and lover, now a suspect in the vicious attack that has left her in a coma.
The three narrative strands – Sor Juana’s story, Limosneros’s journals, and Gregory’s account – interweave through the book, supplemented by letters, film scripts, Sor Juana’s poetry, interview transcripts, and other ephemera. At this level alone, the novel is impressive – the weaving of voices, which in other novels so often distracts from the narrative, serves instead to heighten the narrative tension. Readers will be hard-pressed to determine which, if any, is the main storyline, as the emphasis continually shifts.
More significantly, Hunger’s Brides is a taut, challenging novel of ideas. Anderson draws on history and mythology, church lore and folklore, psychology and cosmology, the complexities of theology and politics, to create a vibrant tapestry of belief and knowledge, and the considerable grey area between. Take, for example, Beulah’s bulimia: psychologically “explained” as the result of childhood trauma, it nonetheless contains mythic echoes of the story of Isis, vomiting the sun into creation (the line between mythology and psychosis is never clearly drawn), and resonates with the plague that claimed Sor Juana. The dozen years Anderson spent on the book are readily apparent on each page.
Even at over 1,300 pages (with an additional 30 pages of endnotes), Hunger’s Brides never feels too long. And the novel’s length is not the least of the risks Anderson takes. Techniques that shouldn’t work (the adopting of a film-script format for Sor Juana’s final interrogation, for example) seem natural and inevitable. Anderson’s focus on certain events (the lengthy description of Sor Juana’s childhood, for example) seems excessive at first – especially when compared with the cursory treatment given to her time at court or her early years in cloister – but the material becomes essential, every detail significant, as the thematic strands expand.
Anderson’s considerable skill and care also extend to the characterizations. In the Sor Juana passages, he deftly captures a clear sense of the enigmatic poet and her voice, drawing on the surviving texts to create a living character. His depictions of Limosneros and Gregory are equally fine and nuanced. Both characters emerge from the masks of their respective unpleasantness into sympathetic, conflicted, and rich vibrancy. Even supporting characters – from Sor Juana’s scribe Antonia and friend Don Carlos to a contemporary Mayan who befriends Limosneros to the CBC journalist who interrogates Gregory – are fully rounded.
Hunger’s Brides is not for everyone. It is an imposing, challenging work that requires a degree of both surrender and active participation on the part of the reader. In that challenge, however, Anderson’s debut stands proudly alongside such works as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy. - Robert J. Wiersema


When I was at school, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth I and Boadicea were the unassailable heroines of history. Today's inclusive culture has added to them women such as Mary Seacole, Catherine of Alexandria and Juana Inés de la Cruz. A Mexican of Spanish descent, Sister Juana (1650-1695) was a proto-feminist poet in nun's clothing. Hunger's Brides, a gargantuan fictionalised biography, portrays her as "a genius… arguably the greatest writer working in any European tongue" at that time.
Sister Juana was certainly an extraordinary character. Encouraged by her free-thinking grandfather, this child prodigy - she could read fluently at the age of three - was allowed to develop her intellect unfettered. At 17 she won a poetry joust held in a bullring, and was appointed to the viceroy's court. As her beauty and wit became the talk of Mexico City, Juana fell victim to dangerous liaisons. Betrayed by her cousin, Magda, and seduced by the Milanese ambassador, she renounced her privileges and took holy orders. The remaining 22 years of her life were spent in the convent of San Jerónimo.
Not even the self-abnegations - and the nuns come up with some wonderfully creative mortifications - of cloistered solitude could censor Juana's mind or sap her spirit. In poetry, plays and theological treatises, she expressed dangerously anti-clerical beliefs, and a sometimes Sapphic interest in ancient Greece. The Inquisition's local rep confiscated her books, musical instruments and scientific equipment, and instigated judicial proceedings against her. After a long struggle with a Church not much given to compromise, she gave up the pen. Five years later, she died of the plague.
Her life is framed by a story set in modern-day Calgary. Beulah Limosneros, a troubled university student obsessed by Sister Juana, is discovered comatose in her apartment. Lurking in the shadows of what looks like an attempted suicide is the pony-tailed figure of Donald Gregory, a philandering academic with whom Beulah had been having an affair. Gregory steals away with her papers, including her work on Sister Juana, which he refuses to submit to the authorities. The police suspect foul play.
On the evidence cited here, Sister Juana used poetry as a means to explain herself:
I neither treasure the lovely lustre
that proves but the spoil of age,
nor covet wealth of counterfeit coinage;
thinking it far better, by my lights,
to set aside the vanities of life
than spend a whole life in vain.

Inspiring stuff, if hardly comparable with Dryden. Whatever the merits of Juana Inés de la Cruz as a writer, they are beside the point of what is, to quote its subtitle, "a novel of the baroque". The baroque, says the narrator, "was besotted with myth and tricks of perception". So too, at some cost to the reader's sanity, is Hunger's Brides.
The myths are fine. The young Juana is comforted by tales of FeatherSerpent, SmokingMirror and EarthToad; the African slaves are kept in isolation due to the inscrutability of their animism; the colony is governed by fear of sedition. Beulah "mythologises" Sister Juana to make her own pain "meaningful and therefore bearable". Reading Beulah's diaries, Gregory wonders "at what points does a testimony pass from the subjective through the fictive into the expressly counterfeit?"
It's the tricks that are the problem. Torrents rather than streams of consciousness are the result of the 12 years Paul Anderson devoted to this, his first novel. It is one thing to use postmodern devices as a reflection of Beulah's mental disintegration, but a chapter that begins "(1-4 HORIZONTALS) THE ALL-LORD: Who prospers the Two Lands; the Two Ladies: [-] beloved of Ptah, l.p.h.!, …", only to carry on in this vein for 12 pages, smacks of the emperor's new clothes.
Tepid self-references, "in which the editor obtrudes, in antiquated fashion, with some exposition", give way to prose that would embarrass the most pretentious sixth-former: "Heraclitus has written that one never enters the same river twice. But the greatest of rivers and the smallest streams share a destiny, however obscure it may remain as they run to the sea."
Hackneyed jokes - "If you can fix it, it ain't baroque" - turn up irrelevantly, as though the writer can't bear to waste any pun he has ever thought of, or even save it in the unlikely event of a more suitable posting. It's hard to know whether to laugh at those Canadian literati by whom this overwritten, under-edited behemoth is considered a tour de force, or to cry over publishers who allowed the author to smother with incontinent verbiage what, at a quarter of the length, is potentially a decent novel.
Still, it does have a happy ending. And, if you carry its 4lb 9oz bulk around in your bag, you could lose weight. Or the use of your shoulder. - David Isaacson

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