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The Conquest    by Yxta Maya Murray order for
by Yxta Maya Murray
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2003 (2002)

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* *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

The Conquest is set in two time periods and places - Europe in the 1500s and the present day United States. Sara, a rare book restorer working for the Getty Museum, finds a book that speaks to her heritage. Despite the criticism of her peers, Sara becomes entangled in the story and seeks to prove that it was written by a woman and not a monk.

The woman, Helen, was one of the Mexican prisoners taken by Cortéz to Europe to be presented to the Pope. In contrast to Sara's life, Helen's is full of adventure and mystery, and the descriptions Murray provides of her time in Europe are lyrical and full of magical realism. Both women feel the cultural dissonance in their lives, and both are on a quest to right what they perceive as cultural wrongs. This is historical fiction from a female point of view, with women wielding power, especially in the European story. The period reeks of libertinism and wanton behavior, and Helen and her allies make the most of their opportunities - which results in a gripping story.

Sara's tale, on the other hand, is more reflective of her occupation. The work of a book restorer requires painstaking attention to detail, and this is what Sara must bring to her search to prove the authorship of the book. Her personal life takes a back seat to this obsession. In this part of the novel, Murray demonstrates a fine sense of place: the research activities of the Getty come vividly alive for us. Sara's pursuit of the clues offered by the book causes her relationship with her lover to be unresolved until she can sort out the book's meaning for her own life.

At the end, both Helen and Sara have managed to make some sense of themselves despite their cultural displacement. My book club praised Helen's tale but had mixed feelings about the modern story. They loved the character of Sara's father but thought that her lover was pretty weak. The paperback version was uniformly denounced, both for its editing errors and for its use of difficult italics to tell Helen's story.

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