Hunger's Brides
Page Updated On: 04/16/2013

Reviews

Reviews

There have been glowing reviews. But they are not all raves. Anderson concedes that the book is constructed in such a way as to make life difficult for critics. Beulah Limosneros, who is the creator of Sor Juana's chapters, is determined to write a book so beautiful it will break her cynical ex-lover's heart, a story so human that he will see himself writ small in it, a work so layered and teeming with leads that it will break the rule-bound critic in him down and force him to feel.

But instead of the expected howls of outrage and braying contempt, most of the real-world critics, or reviewers at least, have made legitimate attempts to come to terms with different aspects of the project (once they could let themselves get over the length). Stringing their reservations together would create a different impression than the one created here, but they've had their day in court.

Critical response to Hunger's Brides

 

In the United States

 

"A tour de force of a debut novel, recounting the life of the last great poet of Spain’s Golden Age and, 'arguably, the most mythologized mortal in human history...'  Anderson’s is a tale of hidden messages, of secrets kept from inquisitors, of manifold mysteries...  A Da Vinci Code for the literate, reminiscent of Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Carlos Fuentes at their best; sure to draw attention to Sor Juana, who remains one of the most fascinating figures in world literature."

Kirkus Reviews [starred review]

***

"Lyrical, provocative, and painstakingly detailed, the novel follows the lives of two child prodigies separated by three centuries: real-life seventeenth-century poet Juana Ines de la Cruz, who entered a convent at age 19 and later took a vow of silence, and fictional Canadian Beulah Limosneros, a moody, modern-day scholar singularly obsessed with the nun's tragic life. Ranging from excerpts from Sor Juana's luminous verse to Beulah's complex relationship with her shadowy, seductive professor, Anderson's narrative revolves around the question, "Why would a genius withdraw from the world?" Blending history, mystery, and theology, Anderson simultaneously ponders and honors the life of a little-known poet who inspired the likes of Robert Graves, Diane Ackerman, and Octavio Paz..."

Booklist

 

***

"...reminiscent of Akhmatova's confrontations with Stalin."

Publisher's Weekly

***

"An epic work, Hunger's Brides is a rich, satisfying, exotic treat... Hunger's Brides creates not just a single world, but worlds overlapping and interpenetrating. Incarnated here, Sor Juana's embodiment of spirit somehow makes subjects like cosmology and theology real to a contemporary reader; by humanizing them, she makes them matter. Sor Juana died at 44, while nursing plague victims. Four years before, she had taken an oath of silence, and signed it in her own blood. This was perhaps the most famous event in her life: The novel's exposition of it climaxes in her 40-day interrogation by Nuñez de Miranda, the chief censor of the Inquisition and her confessor of 25 years. Presented in the form of a screenplay, this confrontation is almost overpoweringly dramatic, and dares comparison with Dostoevski's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor." The novel would be worth reading for it alone ... The Guide Michelin used to classify noteworthy places as "worth the journey" or "deserves a detour." Both apply to Hunger's Brides. [It] never seems to seek profundity but repeatedly achieves it... Only the operatives of advertising and public relations use the word great for contemporary works; that's a judgment only posterity can reach with any authority, and even then the experts will argue about it. But Hunger's Brides is at least a candidate. Serious readers take note.

James Leigh, San Diego Union-Tribune

 

***

"The literary puns, metaphors, and images are wild and intriguing, particularly in Beulah's psychotic prose poems, her sensual journal, and the passages about the plague that ultimately claimed Sor Juana's life. The author's comfortably paced narrative introduces numerous characters and events and raises social and philosophical questions that compel personal reflection. This is an extraordinary debut, with depth of detail and narrative skill presented effortlessly throughout its staggering length. Highly recommended." 

Library Journal [starred review]

 

***

"This wonderful, engaging novel is sure to please fans of all genres."

Book Sense pick for September 2005

 

***

"Anderson, above all, is a superb linguistic stylist... the narrative is a combination of prose, poetry, play and letters, delivered in the voices of numerous characters, historical and fictional... Readers will appreciate, too, Anderson's vast understanding of Mexico's culture, with its roots in the Aztec gods and the Spanish conquest. The beauty of the novel — Anderson spent 12 years writing it — is that it can be enjoyed at several levels. Readers do not need to know the works of Ovid, for example, although that could deepen understanding of passages concerning Sor Juana's scholarship. It is rewarding enough to experience life as Sor Juana must have, her magical childhood on the sides of Mexico City's volcanoes and her austere-but-creative adulthood as a nun-poetess.

San Antonio Express-News

 

***

"The creation of a believable voice for Sor Juana is Anderson's most remarkable achievement in his debut novel. His reconstruction of the culture of racial fusion created by the conquest of the New World and of the religious and political climate of 17th-century Mexico is vivid, written with verve and authority. Equally impressive is Anderson's knowledge of Mexico's pre-Columbian past -- which he sees as a golden age. And he does a wonderful job showing us how important that past was to the development of Sor Juana's art. Anderson's filigreed language is often resplendent... Hunger's Brides is a novel of high seriousness, a labor of love. And Anderson earns our admiration for his ability to write passages that leave us swooning with their musicality and their radiance… in many places, Anderson touches greatness.

Washington Post Book World

 

***

"Paul Anderson's astonishingly ambitious novel combines lush and vivid prose with memorable storytelling that creates a rich canvas, a kind of Diego Rivera mural, blending the past and present, history and myth, genius and obsession. A young graduate student has spent four years immersed in the baroque world of Sor Juana's 17th-century Mexico City. Poring over maps, paintings and architectural drawings, sifting through convent and civil records, and furiously compiling research notes on the Spanish Conquest and the Inquisition, she develops an unsettling attachment to Sor Juana. With her research project, and her life, coming unhinged, she abandons the library and disappears into Mexico City. What did she sacrifice - and what was she prepared to sacrifice - in order to continue her research? HUNGER'S BRIDES is a prodigiously long novel - and absolutely compelling and irresistible."

— Cody's Books, Berkeley, California

 

***

"Despite its massive weight (4.5 pounds) and girth (1,358 pages), Anderson's ambitious novel deserves more than doorstop status ... a compelling tale and limpidly beautiful prose..."

Entertainment Weekly

 

***

"There are layers and layers each filled with beautiful nuances, details and charms. This is without a doubt an unapologetic work of literature and not simply popular fiction ... two main stories and three main characters are the core of the novel. As the title implies, they are driven by hunger ... intense passion seems to imbue every page with striking beauty. Even terrible descriptions of plague and death are carried out with a grace and skill that paint a picture of dark beauty. At times it feels as though you don't read this book as much as let yourself by taken away in the torrential flow of its words."

— EC/DC

 

In Britain

 

"Gripping...a page-turner."

— John Sutherland, chair of the Man Booker 2005 prize committee

 

***

"This novel fuses historical research with mystic contemplation, binds together the 17th century with the 20th, connects a real-life character to a fictional one and explores the ominous obsession that can swamp a biographer when she becomes too embroiled with the life of her subject. At 1,300 pages the length is daunting, but the persistent reader will reap huge rewards."

— Scotland on Sunday (The Scotsman)

 

***

"One of the longest literary novels in popular memory since Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy . . . Fortunately, it’s not a case of never mind the quality, feel the width. Hunger’s Brides realises its ambitions, taking the reader on a journey spanning 350 years and bringing to life one of the greatest literary figures of the 17th century."

Publishing News

***

It's a challenge merely to grasp the complex structure of this heavyweight historical novel from a new Canadian voice ... Sor Juana's career and the descriptions of 17th-century Mexico are impressive ... ambitious.

The Guardian

 

In Canada

Vintage trade paperback release: autumn 2005

"...by turns erotic and chilling ... the writing approaches the wondrous; readers may find themselves savouring certain passages over and over again."

Edmonton Journal

 

Random House hardcover release: autumn 2004

"Paul Anderson's inspired ... 12-year labour of love offers us epic, encyclopaedic testimony to the contemporary powers of this hybrid and haunted mode of fiction. Hunger's Brides is one of those rare novels — there are no more than a handful of them in the modern history of the form — that will reshape our notions of what it is possible to do with fiction and history, with myth, legend and language; and, above all, with character."

Neil Besner, Winnipeg Free Press

***

"Hunger's Brides, one of the biggest gambles in Canadian publishing, is one of the most remarkable books in recent memory....a taut, challenging novel of ideas. The dozen years Anderson spent on the book are readily apparent on each page. Even at over 1,300 pages... Hunger's Brides never feels too long.... 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."

— Rob Wiersema, Quill & Quire [starred review]

***

"Extraordinary ... No other Canadian book has generated such pre-publication talk in 2004. Hunger's Brides could turn out to be the book of the year..."

Brian Bethune, MacLean's magazine, Sept. 20th.

***

"...like Molly Bloom on peyote. Anderson has an uncanny knack for writing believable female characters filled with both self-love and self-loathing. Sitting helplessly by while the remarkable Beulah tears her own heart out made for one of the most harrowing reading experiences I've had in a while.... Anderson writes as the best painters paint — with clarity, finesse and infinite suggestion... all this beauty is worth the trip. The many trips."

— Melanie Little, Vancouver Sun

***

"A 1354-page tour-de-force... There's no doubting the meat on the bones of Hunger's Brides, the brilliance of its ideas and composition..."

— Brian Bethune, MacLean's magazine, Oct. 4th

 

***

"...there are pages in this book that are so inventive, so clever and so complete that they blunt whatever criticism you can direct Anderson's way. This is a book that will live. You probably won't read it straight through, but I promise you will keep going back to it... Trust me. It's worth it."

— Marc Horton, Edmonton Journal

 

***

"Anderson gives us Baroque Mexico in all its splendour and squalor — his talent is not so much recreating the voice of an era word by word, as recreating the life of an era on the page.... Hunger's Brides is a pageant for the mind."

— Alberta Views magazine

 

***

"... so beautifully written... the words themselves could bring readers to tears ... it is an astoundingly beautiful book."

— Kim Covert, Canadian Press

 

***

"...richly imagined and rendered ... the breadth of which beggars description ... Gertrude Stein-meets-William Gass ... a great, gaudy cathedral ... Hunger's Brides is a beautiful monster that resists, often with brilliance, the unforgiving logics of myopic inquisition. See for yourself."

— Adrian Michael Kelly, Calgary Herald

***

"There are marvels here ... a work of massive scope and grand ambition. ... what the author does ... is let language loose, and the result is startling, at times frightening and often beautiful. Everything and everyone ... becomes raised to epiphany... It becomes clear, through the verbal energy of these passages, that the greatest achievement of Anderson's novel (and perhaps its true subject) is in the evocation of the teeming, sordid pageant of Mesoamerica: its mythic, blood-soaked history, its geography of extremes, the holocaust of its cities and its people. Through Beulah's eyes, Mexico becomes emblematic of Western civilization, and what we have done to ourselves by inheriting the ethos of the conquistadors and becoming technological masters of the planet."

— Globe & Mail

***

"Most impressive is Anderson's ability to sustain the lure of the various plots over such an extended volume — nothing included in the work is unnecessary or superfluous. The multitude of voices is captured so believably that it's easy to forget Hunger's Brides is ultimately fictional... Complex and layered, Hunger's Brides is a compelling read. It not only serves as an introduction to the inspiring history of Sor Juana, but asks probing questions about the nature of hunger and passion and the intricacies of madness. All this, and it's beautifully written. Even if Anderson takes another 12 years to write his next novel, it's likely to be well worth the wait."

— Cassandra Drudi, The Varsity (University of Toronto)

 

Praise for the stage adaptation of Hunger's Brides...

  "A meditation on power, sex and genius spanning three centuries and two cultures."

Globe & Mail

" Poetic descriptive prose . . . filled with color and character."

Calgary Herald

Reviews of the Hunger's Brides website...

In a post-modern, hyper-mediated world it is only natural that someone will review not the book but its website. Here's the first in what we hope will be many.

"...one of the most extensive Web sites we’ve ever seen for a book. The site, HungersBrides.com, created jointly by an arts collective and production house in Mexico City called Mundo Canela and a production company in Calgary called New Specs, includes news, interviews, clips of the author reading, reviews, a publisher’s introduction and an area called “The Hermitage,” which includes extensive information about the real-life character around whom the plot revolves—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. And last but not least, it offers a photo montage of safe reading positions (as seen here) for the monstrous tome."

— Tim Nudd, Adfreak

Longer excerpts from reviews of the novel...

"Canadian Fiction Turns to History, Artfully"

"Over the last 30 years, fiction in Canada as elsewhere has been turning, ever more artfully, to history.... Paul Anderson's inspired, 1300-page, 12-year labour of love offers us epic, encyclopaedic testimony to the contemporary powers of this hybrid and haunted mode of fiction. Hunger's Brides is one of those rare novels — there are no more than a handful of them in the modern history of the form — that will reshape our notions of what it is possible to do with fiction and history, with myth, legend and language; and, above all, with character. The most inspired element in this magnificent novel is the tragic but ultimately inspiring story — given to us, through Anderson's alchemy, largely in her own words — of the life and death of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz... what emerges in the stately rhythms of Hunger's Brides is the measured progress of Sor Juana's early devotions to her family...

As the dark shadows of the Inquisition lower over her, its Byzantine intgriguings of minions high and low undermining her every defence, there accrues to Sor Juana a solemn and wholly believable dignity. Gently but inexorably, she grows in stature as she is diminished by her legion of oppressors.

At story's end, you can hear the music, and the steady heartbeat, of that inverse rhythm underscoring this novel from its beginnings. And, as with every good novel — and Hunger's Brides is much more than simply good — this book will change your life"

Neil Besner, dean of humanities, University of Manitoba

 

"A Hunger for Connection"   [starred review]

This immense first novel, which took the author 12 years to write, revolves around Mexican nun and poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-95), a leading Baroque literary and religious figure and strong advocate of women's rights. Sor Juana possessed an amazing intelligence and wit that threatened the ruling patriarchic government and Catholic culture and led to her persecution by the Inquisition. Her life becomes the obsession of graduate student Beulah Limosneros following an affair with her college professor, Donald Gregory. Fearing she might have incriminating evidence against him, Donald steals a box from Beulah's apartment that contains her personal journals, research on the Inquisition and on Mayan culture, translations of Sor Juana's poetry, and a comprehensive historical novel about the legendary figure (presented here with footnotes). A subplot involves Beulah's own voyage of self-discovery and her need to strip Donald of everything in his life, set against the contemporary backdrop of the selfish and vacuous gringo culture, in which each of us is a "star of our own movie."

The literary puns, metaphors, and images are wild and intriguing, particularly in Beulah's psychotic prose poems, her sensual journal, and the passages about the plague that ultimately claimed Sor Juana's life. The author's comfortably paced narrative introduces numerous characters and events and raises social and philosophical questions that compel personal reflection. This is an extraordinary debut, with depth of detail and narrative skill presented effortlessly throughout its staggering length. Highly recommended.

 — David A. Beronä,  Library Journal (U.S.)

 

Fiction: Hunger's Brides [starred review]

A tour de force of a debut novel, recounting the life of the last great poet of Spain’s Golden Age and, “arguably, the most mythologized mortal in human history.”

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-95), the Mexican poet, was uniquely brilliant, as one-of-a-kind as Albert Einstein. Anderson dares to inhabit her mind and that of another woman separated by centuries, weaving their lives and creations and those of their confidants and lovers into a carefully constructed lattice. One story belongs to Beulah Limosneros, a gifted young woman who falls under the tutelage—but not the spell—of a cynical professor who switched from philosophy to literature in order to meet women and has never regretted the choice until now. “Smart, pretty, psycho” Beulah is torn by gradually revealed wounds, but she rises to tough occasions more willingly than Don Don, as she tauntingly calls her professor. When things turn ugly, he is by her side, but not for selfless reasons, and her sufferings and his subsequent trials are both hellish and perfectly believable. Enfolding their tale is that of Sor Juana, whose sad life Beulah has been exploring (and unconsciously emulating): A reader since the age of three, her ample mind nourished by a freethinking grandfather, she is learned, beautiful and rebellious, profoundly aware of the violent and tragic world she inhabits; as a bedazzled and himself dazzling suitor writes, “We are driven from Eden for the blood on our hands, yet prolong our exile only to plunge them in ink.” Books and words are powerful, as everyone in this bookish and strikingly written novel comes to discover, and they exact a cost. Anderson’s is a tale of hidden messages, of secrets kept from inquisitors, of manifold mysteries, and he does an admirable job of keeping them all sorted out without dropping a single thread.

A Da Vinci Code for the literate, reminiscent of Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Carlos Fuentes at their best; sure to draw attention to Sor Juana, who remains one of the most fascinating figures in world literature.

Kirkus Reviews

"Hungry for More" [starred review]

“The three narrative strands – Sor Juana’s story, Limosneros’s journals, and Gregory’s account – interweave through the book, supplemented by letters, film scripts, 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…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, 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) seem excessive at first – especially when compared with the cursory treatment given to her time at court or her early years in the 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 Beulah 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.”

— Rob Wiersema, Quill & Quire

"Secrets, Lies and Conundrums"

It's a difficult text, even to describe. Ranging seamlessly between the 17th century and now, Hunger's Brides details the parallel lives of two child prodigies, Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz, the greatest Spanish-language poet of her era, and the unstable Beulah Limosneros, a Calgary scholar obsessed with the Mexican Juana, who entered a convent at 19 and eventually took a vow of silence. Beulah's former supervisor (and one-time lover) Don Gregory narrates the tale, piecing it together from notes he snatched from Beulah's apartment after a beating left her in a coma.

And that's just the starting point for a novel that draws on Inquisitorial records, Spanish accounts of Aztec blood sacrifices, and theological disputes, to ask why genius would silence itself. Anderson undermines the basic assumptions of historical fiction by constantly pointing out the threads linking the Baroque age to the 20th century, like the remarkably similar heresy trials held in Soviet Russia and Colonial Mexico. And by slyly reminding readers, through Gregory's mocking footnotes, that people in the past sounded fully modern to themselves, just as we will sound antiquated to future generations. That was a lesson he had to learn himself from Beulah, the master taught by the student: "Your Postmodern, Dr. Gregory, is just the Baroque, with its blood sucked out." There's no doubting the meat on the bones of Hunger's Brides, the brilliance of its ideas and composition, but it's no easy read.

— MacLean's magazine, Sept. 20th, 2004

 

"A Long and Winding Road"

"...the heart of Hunger's Brides is intact. Despite its labyrinthine construction, the writing is so consistently good that each of its many worlds has a life and weight of its own.

We get Sor Juana's poetically charged girlhood, shaped as much by the indigenous Nahuatl language of her region as by her grandfather's hallowed library. We see her frenetic years at court and her erotically charged friendships, often with women. Her harrowing intellectual and spiritual battles with the misogynistic prelates of the Inquisition, her heartbreaking self-abasement and self-sacrifice. All of these are drawn with detail, subtlety and emotion.

Whatever pomo playfulness is at work in the book as a whole, Anderson does not give short shrift to the real, affective history of his main subject. He has done great justice to the extant historical material on Sor Juana without letting his imagination become shackled by it.

Surprisingly, though, it is Beulah who emerges as the novel's most interesting character. Her too-infrequent diaristic ramblings come out in a profane stream-of-consciousness screech, like Molly Bloom on peyote. Anderson has an uncanny knack for writing believable female characters filled with both self-love and self-loathing. Sitting helplessly by while the remarkable Beulah tears her own heart out made for one of the most harrowing reading experiences I've had in a while....

 Anderson writes as the best painters paint — with clarity, finesse and infinite suggestion... all this beauty is worth the trip. The many trips."

— Melanie Little, Vancouver Sun newspaper

 

"Brides Calls for Big Appetite for Epic Writing"

Anderson, above all, is a superb linguistic stylist, almost to the level of, say, James Joyce. The novel's prose style often is complex and ornate. But the narrative is a combination of prose, poetry, play and letters, delivered in the voices of numerous characters, historical and fictional...

One aim of Anderson's debut novel is to explain why Sor Juana lived her last five years in silence. Known now for controversial religious theories and sensuous poetry, Sor Juana essentially was hounded into silence by church leaders intimidated by her superior intelligence. Sor Juana is only one of hunger's brides, however. Anderson sets her against a contemporary young Sor Juana scholar in Canada named Beulah Limosneros, who also hungers for love and meaning in the 1990s. Organizing the narrative that spans 300 years is Limosneros' philandering professor in Alberta, Donald Gregory, himself on a journey of self-awareness. The book's central event is a gory episode in which Gregory finds Limosneros, just returned to Canada from a drugged orgiastic visit to Mexico, injured and bleeding. Gregory escapes the scene with a box of Limosneros' papers, including a Sor Juana novel, presumably the one already being read in "Hunger's Brides."

...readers will wonder, as they plow through hundreds of pages of wonderful prose and poetry, "Does this book have a point?" The language, baroque and otherwise, eventually becomes the point. That, and a wonderfully developed theme about time. Readers will appreciate, too, Anderson's vast understanding of Mexico's culture, with its roots in the Aztec gods and the Spanish conquest.

The beauty of the novel — Anderson spent 12 years writing it — is that it can be enjoyed at several levels. Readers do not need to know the works of Ovid, for example, although that could deepen understanding of passages concerning Sor Juana's scholarship. It is rewarding enough to experience life as Sor Juana must have, her magical childhood on the sides of Mexico City's volcanoes and her austere-but-creative adulthood as a nun-poetess.

— David Hendricks, San Antonio Express-News

"Prize Prose"

The book the judges may have to stare at the longest is the extraordinary Hunger's Brides. At 1,358 pages, Paul Anderson's debut novel is almost a library in miniature, and the story of its creation is itself an epic. Readers won't be surprised to learn that Anderson was a budding philosophy prof, albeit one who abandoned the academic life in 1989 to sail the world. He ended up in Mexico writing short stories, which is where he discovered the precociously brilliant 17th-century Mexican poet and nun Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz. Back in Calgary, he spent eight years crafting a 1,000-page novel of her life and times. Anderson was convinced that any publisher would demand cuts, and was stunned to hear Random House of Canada publisher Anne Collins request more after he submitted it in 1999. It took another five years for the author to come up with the additional pages, and for Random House to launch the fall's biggest publishing gamble. First novels rarely make money, and one that uses three or four times the paper of its competitors while costing only about $5 more ($39.95) is starting way up the track. The publisher has covered some of its bets by restricting the hardcover print run to 5,000 copies — any reprinting will be in trade paperback. But the gamble may yet pay off. No other Canadian book has generated such pre-publication talk in 2004. Hunger's Brides could turn out to be the book of the year, and those 5,000 hardcovers collectors' items.

— MacLean's magazine, Oct. 4th, 2004

"Rettie on Books"

Hunger's Brides is not a book with which to while away a pleasant afternoon. For those who can give it the attention it deserves, though, this is a novel not to miss. Anderson gives us Baroque Mexico in all its splendour and squalor - his talent is not so much recreating the voice of an era word by word, as recreating the life of an era on the page. He also gives us a wonderful modern version of the Baroque, full of the intriguing intersections between appearance and reality, and deeply conscious of the distance between the two. Parts of Hunger's Brides started life as a multimedia performance piece with Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit troupe, and the theatrical sensibility is never far from the surface. I wasn't always sure I liked what Anderson was doing, especially in the contemporary sections of the book, but I always wanted to keep on looking. Hunger's Brides is a pageant for the mind.

—Alberta Views magazine

"A Story within a Story"

The section that is most easily read is the story of Sor Juana, which is so beautifully written, particularly at the beginning, the words themselves could bring readers to tears. The grace and the poetry of the presentation draw readers in and introduce them to the world of 17th-century Mexico - not just the Spanish world, but the Indian. It is, among other things, a short course in Mexican Indian mythology. It is also at the beginning the story of a brilliant little girl and the beloved grandfather who nurtures her intelligence.... it is an astoundingly beautiful book. Anderson judiciously spent the 12 years it took to write.

—Canadian Press (CP) news service

 

"Going for Baroque"

The novel attempts nothing less than an apocalyptic anatomizing of modernity, and the result is a book one does not read so much as wrestle with. There are marvels here, as well as frustrations, making Hunger's Brides a work of massive scope and grand ambition.... In one long section, the novel chronicles Juana's months of fear after she learns that the dreaded Office of the Inquisition has its eye on her as a possible heretic, and may be summoning her at any time. Anderson paints a compelling portrait of a mind literally cloistered and feeding upon whatever it can get to stave off terror, working obsessively over every memory and incident for hidden meanings.... there are early hints, mostly in Beulah's interspersed diary entries, that Anderson is capable of much more. And so it proves, making this book a kind of "monster" itself, sometimes lumbering and sometimes soaring.

Both the Juana and Gregory narratives contain some fine, memorable scenes, but what the author does with the Beulah sections is let language loose, and the result is startling, at times frightening and often beautiful. Everything and everyone Beulah encounters becomes raised to epiphany by the caustic intensity of her vision. It becomes clear, through the verbal energy of these passages, that the greatest achievement of Anderson's novel (and perhaps its true subject) is in the evocation of the teeming, sordid pageant of Mesoamerica: its mythic, blood-soaked history, its geography of extremes, the holocaust of its cities and its people. Through Beulah's eyes, Mexico becomes emblematic of Western civilization, and what we have done to ourselves by inheriting the ethos of the conquistadors and becoming technological masters of the planet.

— Globe & Mail newspaper

 

"Engrossing Epic"

Subtitled "a novel of the baroque," Anderson tells several stories within the novel's many pages. The primary character is the non-fictitious Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican nun and poet who lived in the 1600s. Almost completely self-taught, she wrote prolifically until she signed a statement of contrition in her own blood. Anderson presents Juana's life as it is constructed by Beulah Limosneros, an ex-graduate student obsessed with determining what could have made such an impassioned, irreverent writer succumb to the pressures of the Church.

Beulah is also the ex-lover of Donald Gregory — a professor of English at the University of Calgary before scandal (involving Beulah and a violent winter night) rocked the city and caused him to resign. He is the novel's editor, stitching together episodes from his life with entries from Beulah's diary and her fictionalized accounts of Juana's life, as well as poems by Juana herself.

With so many disparate voices competing for the reader's attention, it might sound like there's just too much going on in Hunger's Brides to make it worth reading. But the stories are completely captivating, and though the piecemeal way in which they're stitched together is somewhat jarring at first, each voice is so distinctive that it soon becomes easy to follow.

Most impressive is Anderson's ability to sustain the lure of the various plots over such an extended volume — nothing included in the work is unnecessary or superfluous. The multitude of voices is captured so believably that it's easy to forget Hunger's Brides is ultimately fictional (the use of extensive footnotes, ostensibly written by Gregory, that refer to people and works that actually do exist only adds to such confusion).

Complex and layered, Hunger's Brides is a compelling read. It not only serves as an introduction to the inspiring history of Sor Juana, but asks probing questions about the nature of hunger and passion and the intricacies of madness. All this, and it's beautifully written. Even if Anderson takes another 12 years to write his next novel, it's likely to be well worth the wait.

— Cassandra Drudi, The Varsity (University of Toronto)

"Full Plate: A Rich, Satisfying, Exotic Treat"

The first thing most reviewers and readers will notice or hear about Paul Anderson's "Hunger's Brides" is that it is very long. At 1,358 pages (including footnotes and acknowledgments) it must be among the longest single-volume novels ever published. A recent New York Times feature made light of its bulk, noting that it weighs as much as a six-pack and more than the average Chihuahua. Thus it risks being one of those books more talked about, and even joked about, than read. In the era of 15-minute fame and instant everything else, that wouldn't be surprising, but it would be a great pity. At the center of "Hunger's Brides" is a rich, vivid, suspenseful historical novel about the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, one of the most extraordinary figures in literary history. Sor Juana, 1651?-1695, is generally considered the greatest Spanish Colonial poet and the last great poet of the Spanish Golden Age. She has been the subject of extended treatment by Robert Graves, and in even greater depth by the Mexican poet and Nobel Prize-winner Octavio Paz.

Though the novel proposes a different scenario, she is conventionally said to have taken the vows to avoid marriage. In any case, it was inside the Mexico City convent of St. Jerome (over almost a quarter-century) that she wrote the poems and plays, religious and secular, that made her famous. She was also made visible and vulnerable by her impassioned rebuttal of the hierarchical opposition to the education of women.

Born out of wedlock in the rural village of Nepantla, she taught herself to read at age 3 in her grandfather's library, and read her way through its more than 2,000 volumes. Beginning with Spanish and the Nahuatl of her birthplace, she soon became multilingual. Early in her teens, she was summoned to the Court of the Viceroy to be examined at length by professors from the Royal University. The tradition says she out-debated them all, a showing that made her an instant favorite of the court. There, she became the preferred author of every sort of poem that court occasions might require; still, it was only after taking the vows that she wrote the works that made her renowned throughout literate Europe and the Colonies.

Sor Juana died at 44, while nursing plague victims. Four years before, she had taken an oath of silence, and signed it in her own blood. This was perhaps the most famous event in her life: The novel's exposition of it climaxes in her 40-day interrogation by Nuñez de Miranda, the chief censor of the Inquisition and her confessor of 25 years. Presented in the form of a screenplay, this confrontation is almost overpoweringly dramatic, and dares comparison with Dostoevski's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor." The novel would be worth reading for it alone.

There is very nearly a second novel contained in "Hunger's Brides": the contemporary story of Donald Gregory, a Canadian literature professor, and of Beulah Limosneros, his most unforgettable student (to put it mildly). Gregory is the narrator, to whom the task falls of beginning and ending the entire novel. Beulah, a distractingly brilliant and well-read graduate student of Mexican origin, has become obsessed by the rich, baroque world of 17th-century Mexico, and above all by the figure of Sor Juana. After a brief affair with Gregory, a career Don Juan among his students, she flees to Mexico to pursue the project that has ? for convincing reasons ? dwarfed her other studies: a comprehensively researched, definitive historical "fiction" about the nun-poet.

The novel begins melodramatically, with Gregory leaving Beulah's Calgary apartment as she lies bleeding and seriously wounded. Though the prologue has revealed that she survives, this opening will only be fully resolved, after prolonged suspense, at the book's end. Interwoven with the sections of Sor Juana's story are the serious subplots of Gregory's flight from Canada and Beulah's earlier one to Mexico. Gregory takes with him a box containing her work to date.

Using Beulah's diary and dream record, Gregory determines to complete, "in the format of literary biography," the work she has undertaken. Thus, the narrative of Sor Juana is researched, annotated and half-written by Beulah. Then, using poems, diary extracts, letters, diverse narrative modes — and the above-mentioned screenplay — the finished novel is constructed by Gregory, the author's instrument.

Anderson worked 12 years on "Hunger's Brides," and is now at work on a Spanish version with a team of translators. A literal version of the title would be "Prometidas para el Hambre," signifying those promised not to Christ or to literature but to hunger itself. This would point to crucial characteristics the two feminine protagonists share: an extraordinary, perhaps insatiable, appetite, not only for knowledge but for wisdom, not only for experience but for transcendence. In a sense, their worlds can hardly contain them. The fates of two such women, 300 years apart, illuminate vividly the differences between their eras as well as the comparable obstacles in their way. If Sor Juana is the more traditionally heroic —an unambiguously inspiring figure — Beulah is the more recognizable, a child of our time.

Subtitled "A Novel of the Baroque," "Hunger's Brides" is set midway in that period of European, English and Latin American art and architecture. The word is more commonly applied to music, painting and sculpture than to literature, yet this novel does in fact exemplify the pursuit of unity among the diverse parts that characterized the baroque. It might also be said that like the massive figures of baroque sculpture, each of the main women, particularly Sor Juana, is conceived on a grand, almost superhuman scale, encompassing huge and various energies, struggling to subdue them to a vision that won't stop evolving. If Beulah fails at the same task, it isn't from want of trying.

There is indeed something baroque about "Hunger's Brides" as a work, in the range of its ambition, the varieties of love — sexual and aesthetic and spiritual — it renders, the intensity of the extremes it makes real in print.

Gregory is the archivist of these two extraordinary women, but his habitual self-irony doesn't keep him from being also an antihero. Like Beulah, he grows only at the cost of great pain and loss, but that gives him greater substance as his own story evolves. The two of them echo Sor Juana in a minor key. All-too-recognizable late-20th-century creatures in their itchy, self-centered obsessiveness, they live here in the extraordinary shadow of Sor Juana. Yet they are on the same wavelength as Silvio, the representative to the viceroy's court from Milan, whom Juana encounters near the end of her time at court. The novel is full of such resonances; Juana's early examination by the sages of the university prefigures her final confession, after the hierarchy has stripped her of her precious books, her living space, her very seniority.

Readers undaunted by novels of, say, 325 pages, may shrink from a novel as long as four such. Beulah's consciousness, at times a stream, is full of references to everything from her own vast reading to a recent film or popular song. But such details really only solidify her character. Yet Anderson is no stranger to the digression, and when it comes to research he is as omnivorous as his protagonists. Juana's (and thus Beulah's) intense interest in the parallels between Christianity and the mythologies of Egypt, Greece and the Aztecs both challenge and enrich a reader's experience of the book. It will be an extraordinary reader who is not occasionally at a loss. "Hunger's Brides" creates not just a single world, but worlds overlapping and interpenetrating.

Incarnated here, Sor Juana's embodiment of spirit somehow makes subjects like cosmology and theology real to a contemporary reader; by humanizing them, she makes them matter.

Kiss-kiss-bang-bang fiction can spoil one for such a book as this, which never seems to seek profundity but repeatedly achieves it. Anderson knows that if you begin with people, history and imagination, and don't attempt to circumscribe them in the name of formulas or prefab plots, programs or agendas or theories, you have a chance to achieve something extraordinary, and to lay it out for a reader to share. The Guide Michelin used to classify noteworthy places as "worth the journey" or "deserves a detour." Both apply to "Hunger's Brides."

Only the operatives of advertising and public relations use the word great for contemporary works; that's a judgment only posterity can reach with any authority, and even then the experts will argue about it. But "Hunger's Brides" is at least a candidate. Serious readers take note.

James Leigh, San Diego Union-Tribune

 

"The Sage of Mexico"

"Paz's seminal work remains unsurpassed in its thorough mapping of the political, cultural and intellectual landscape that produced Sor Juana, a novelist's empathy was needed for the flesh-and-blood woman to emerge. The creation of a believable voice for Sor Juana is Anderson's most remarkable achievement in his debut novel. His reconstruction of the culture of racial fusion created by the conquest of the New World and of the religious and political climate of 17th-century Mexico is vivid, written with verve and authority. Equally impressive is Anderson's knowledge of Mexico's pre-Columbian past -- which he sees as a golden age. And he does a wonderful job showing us how important that past was to the development of Sor Juana's art. Anderson's filigreed language is often resplendent, nowhere more so than in Book One, which describes Sor Juana's childhood in her family's hacienda. Its depiction of Juana's homoerotic friendship with Amanda, the child of the family cook, is lyrical and chock-full of dazzling images -- the bull standing "silent, solid, puffing gouts of steam, like the mountain itself . . . . Around its horns was wound, in a long figure eight, a dark blue cornflower crown…." Hunger's Brides is a novel of high seriousness, a labor of love. And Anderson earns our admiration for his ability to write passages that leave us swooning with their musicality and their radiance… in many places, Anderson touches greatness.

Washington Post

 

The Bad & the Ugly

We ran with it but this was the author's idea -- starting up a rogues' gallery of bad reviews. (Fair warning to the shadowy author: Expect us to post some rebuttals.)

Below is a truly appalling piece of analysis, from someone at Publisher's Weekly in the US.

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 Ines 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 Siguenza y Gongora (a rival and a suitor), her confessor, Father Nunez (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 a 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

***

Could have been told in 500 pages

Can we hear it for 450? 400? Any chance of getting the story right for the length of this review?

_ _ _

"Even at over 1,300 pages, Hunger’s Brides never feels too long ... the material becomes essential, every detail significant, as the thematic strands expand."

Quill & Quire [starred review]

***

Antonia Mora (her intellectual equal)

Where did the reviewer get that idea? (Two poetic geniuses in one cell — there's a story concept.) And would it matter if Antonia were?

Her inability to find success as a poet and scholar

We should all be so unsuccessful.

As if distrusting his material...

Distrusting this material would be to have written a novella.

The scorned woman role a la Fatal Attraction

Impressive breadth of reference. Is that "passive-aggressive twist," then, from another movie blockbuster the reviewer maybe missed? (Hint: Ken Branagh as tormented Dane.)

_ _ _

"...a gifted young woman who falls under the tutelage—but not the spell—of a cynical professor... Beulah is torn by gradually revealed wounds, but she rises to tough occasions more willingly than Don... When things turn ugly, he is by her side, but not for selfless reasons, and her sufferings and his subsequent trials are both hellish and perfectly believable."

Kirkus Reviews [starred review]

***

Sophomoric beat poetry and mystical descriptions of sex

Only middle-aged beat poets are permitted to write mystically of sex. The young should stick to writing about tax returns.

_ _ _

"...what the author does with the Beulah sections is let language loose, and the result is startling, at times frightening and often beautiful. Everything and everyone Beulah encounters becomes raised to epiphany by the caustic intensity of her vision."

Globe & Mail newspaper

***

Embodiment of present day angst: there are food issues, childhood abuse, low self-esteem

Should there have been more shopping? Futuristic angst? Cutting-edge bliss? Rudeness to seniors, rampant self-esteem...

_ _ _

"... Her too-infrequent diaristic ramblings come out in a profane stream-of-consciousness screech, like Molly Bloom on peyote. Anderson has an uncanny knack for writing believable female characters filled with both self-love and self-loathing. Sitting helplessly by while the remarkable Beulah tears her own heart out made for one of the most harrowing reading experiences I've had in a while..."

—Vancouver Sun newspaper

***

Hundreds too many pages of her interior life

"The literary puns, metaphors, and images are wild and intriguing, particularly in Beulah's psychotic prose poems, her sensual journal..."

Library Journal [starred review]

inevitable conflict between beauty, intellect and government power...

Really, is that inevitable -- in a way that being smart but plain or just plain dumb is not? Care to add a word or two about the power of the Church? Or how the Viceregal government was her principal protector for 25 years?

The framing story is ludicrous; this is no Pale Fire

"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." — Quill & Quire [starred review] "A Da Vinci Code for the literate, reminiscent of Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Carlos Fuentes at their best..."

Kirkus Reviews [starred review]

***

(And was Pale Fire great because of its framing story? Do tell.)

Despite some translations by Paz

Hunger's Brides contains no translations by Paz. More importantly, Paz was not an English translator but a great writer of Spanish. Paz translating Sor Juana is like Yeats translating Shakespeare.

 

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