Incunabula. Would you worship a goddess so named? Sara Gonzales,
book restorer at the Getty Museum, has devoted her life to
incunabula, a term referring to books created before the common use
of the printing press. She has sacrificed love and marriage to
pursue her career and has come to question this decision. Now, just
as she learns that the man she has loved since her teen years, an
astronaut-hopeful named Karl, has finally grown tired of their
on-again-off-again romance and plans to marry someone else, she
discovers a strange and compelling book.
Although it is believed to have been written by Padre Miguel
Santiago de Pasamonte, a mad monk notorious for his sensual
adventures and salacious novels, Sara comes to believe this book is
not a novel at all; rather a memoir by the main character, an Aztec
woman brought back to Europe by the explorer Cortes to amuse the
Pope. The Aztec woman is known as Helen in Europe and she cuts a
swashbuckling figure as she perfects her mystical juggling and
bisexual seductive arts, all the while consumed with her thirst for
revenge against Charles V, the ruler responsible for the
destruction of her people.
The Conquest bounces between these two stories: Sara tries to
decide what she really wants from her career and lost love, while
Helen plays very modern games with gender and identity in order to
pursue her agenda. Both women realize that the path to the objects
of their desire can warp what they think they want, but the two
stories haven't much else in common.
Karl is the weakest character in the book; the reader might wonder
why Sara invests so much in a bland, fairly ordinary man with whom
she has so little in common. Well, there's the sex, of course. The
great strength of The Conquest is its sensuality. Whether Ms.
Murray is describing the fine Japanese paper and Moroccan leather
Sara uses in book restoration or the luxurious, decadent meals
Helen discovers in the richest courts in Italy, she is contagious
in her enjoyment of every
gleam, every drop, every stroke. The characters often report that
they are practically unconscious from pleasure, addled and woozy
from their various indulgences. Their very hunger is seductive and
the reader will have no trouble giving in and going along.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn (CQuinn9368@yahoo.com) on January 21, 2011