book review, historical fiction

Review: The Maiden of All Our Desires by Peter Manseau

The Maiden of All Our Desires by Peter Manseau takes place about twenty years after the deadliest stretch of the Black Death in 14th century Europe, as well as incorporates flashbacks occurring just before the start of the plague. While the novel follows Sister/Mother John, Mother Ursula, and Sister Magdalene, the nuns sometimes feel like side characters compared to Father Francis, a woodcarver and once debaucherous priest who is punished for his sins by being sent to a remote convent founded by independent thinking nun Ursula.

Manseau switches time periods and perspectives, yet does not use dates or locations to position the reader. I found the abrupt switch in time periods from chapter to chapter confusing and jarring at times, as it would usually take a few sentences (sometimes paragraphs) or more in to figure out where/when I was. The novel starts as if it will proceed from the prospective of the nuns, but unexpectedly diverges to focus on the life of Father Francis, his fall from grace, and subsequent attempts at redemption.

The Maiden of All Our Desires was slow and uneventful at times, disorienting at others, and vivid in its better moments. Peter Manseau has a talent for descriptive, beautiful language, yet the overall narrative and lack of deeper exploration of the nuns (save Magdalene, but even she doesn’t get as much time and attention as Francis) never seems to match the level of prose. For all Manseau’s descriptive ability, he is also one of those authors who likes to allude to much without ever fully explaining, dancing around a thing without ever fully talking about it; leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions and assumptions.