The more I thought about M is for Mystery’s enthusiasm for Hunger’s Brides, the more pleased I was. At about the time that the book world became interested in genres and the devices that define them, we seemed to have decided that what made fiction “literary” was that it didn’t resort to such devices. The pendulum on this seems to be swinging back somewhat. Thanks to books like The Name of the Rose, we readily recognize the existence of literary mysteries.
But I still think of a book like this as a mystery novel, in that we experience the journey as a subtle game that the author creates for us to play. One of the things, I think, that makes mysteries popular is this promise of reader engagement: this book has been written for you (not for me). Although the Da Vinci Code is not particularly literary, it advances this promise of engagement in offering us a mystery situated in the world we ourselves live in. Solving it in a certain way implies that our own lives, our own understanding of the history that has shaped our world, will be changed.
Kirkus Reviews called Hunger’s Brides a tale of hidden messages, of secrets kept from inquisitors, of manifold mysteries... a Da Vinci Code for the literate … And if there’s a compliment here, I take it to be that the reviewer found in Hunger’s Brides an authentic mystery, with implications and consequences for how we see the world we live in.
In Hunger’s Brides, the narrator of the present-day story, Dr. Donald Gregory, offers readers the surface structure of a crime novel or murder mystery. He is, however, himself the reader of another story whose author, his former student and lover, intends to draw him into a dangerous game, which contains real and serious consequences for his life. Her story is the story of a real historical figure and is driven by two authentic puzzles…
What makes a brilliant, beautiful, accomplished young woman of the 17th-century enter a convent?
What drives that same woman, who has become perhaps the world’s greatest living writer, sign a statement of remorse in her own blood, give away her extensive collection of books and instruments, and fall silent?
The picture that the historical record gives us of Sor Juana is a polymathic figure, with a deep hunger for knowledge – of the world of the senses, and the world of the mind. I see her starting out her life as a child fascinated by riddles and secret knowledge… She comes to see the world itself as a kind of puzzle … and to solve each of its mysteries is to come one step closer to knowing the mind of God, the design of the Grand Plan…
Records discovered about 10 years ago establish now beyond a doubt that Sor Juana was squarely in the gun-sights of the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico. So the mystery I set out to solve was the question of how they would have broken her. (It is fairly widely assumed that they succeeded, but I wanted to revisit that question, too.) They knew her intimately, in that her confessor, her spiritual director, whom she had known for 25 years, was a man with a photographic memory who did double duty as the Chief Censor for the Inquisition.
And so I imagined this deadly game the Inquisition would play, with the purpose of breaking the mind of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, knowing it to be a mind driven since her childhood to solve mysteries and puzzles and find secret connections. And in the end her mind is torn between two great questions -- what the Inquisition is planning for her, and what God intends -- in order to work out the mystery of her own fate.
Beulah Limosneros -- a brilliant, disturbed young researcher of our time -- works ever more obsessively to re-imagine these questions and this state of mind. It has become vital because of her own deep hunger to find something sacred in the world, to acknowledge a sense of mystery in life without settling for some dogmatic version of it –- be it Science’s or Religion’s. She comes to see this as the central problem of the world that you and I live in today.
So in Hunger’s Brides we have an actual historical enigma wrapped in the structure of a literary mystery, whose possible solutions concern the pivotal issue of our time:
Can we keep anything sacred without having it destroyed by rationalistic fundamentalists, on one hand, and without delivering ourselves into the hands of theocratic fundamentalists, on the other?
— Paul Anderson, 30 September 2005