A legendary storm sets the stage for Peter Manseau’s new novel and continues to howl through its pages. “The Maiden of All Our Desires” tells the tempestuous tale of Gaerdegen, a 14th-century European abbey that survives the plague, rumors of heresy and the foibles of its leaders.
Told in incantatory prose, the story unfolds according to the offices of the convent ‒ Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nonce, Vespers, and Compline ‒ with each part adding depth and nuance to the story. Among the characters are the elderly Mother John, the current abbess, who as a young woman defied her family by taking the veil rather than being forced to wed a wealthy older man.
And there’s Father Francis, the youngest son of a family of woodworkers, whose carving lacks the “spark of life” found in his father’s and brother’s work, but who is not without skills. He finds himself sought after by the widows in his town, who have seen him working bare-chested in his shop and flock to seek forgiveness from the comely young priest. “I’d grant them absolution,” he later recalls, “and then give them more to confess.” For his sins, he is exiled to Gaerdegen, where he fulfills his priestly duties but finds his true inspiration scouring the forest for “saints uncarved.”
When news of the plague reaches the isolated abbey, its inhabitants are divided, with some advocating prayer to keep death and disease at bay and others pushing to build a wall. In the end, the story of Gaerdegen becomes a parable of sorts, a meditation on faith and guilt, on how history shapes us and on the hope that underlies human existence. “Every season brings its own liturgy, its own trials, its own transformation,” their founder advises her sisters, in a message that seems even more timely today. “Search now for a blessing, even in the wreckage this storm has left behind.”
Peter Manseau serves as curator of religion at the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to his award-winning novel, “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter,” he has written eight nonfiction works, including “The Apparitionists,” “Rag and Bone,” and a memoir, “Vows.” www.petermanseau.com