From Publishers Weekly
Novelist and poet Howe approaches this spare yet cerebral collection of literary essays with a sense of "bewilderment": "What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work. Bewilderment as a poetics and a politics," like a dream that "hesitates, stands back, makes itself scared, circles and fizzles." Poetically challenging conventional structure and fixed ways of thinking, she divulges deeply personal battles with race and gender in the 60s and 70s; she ruminates on metaphorical fairies, which she considers the art within us; purgatory, the censoring, symbolic space that holds our hidden "true" selves in abeyance; and faith, which she has found through the Catholic church. Her prose shimmers and spins, weaving in stories of writers whose philosophies and struggles have informed her own, such as Simone Weil, Ilona Karmel, Thomas Hardy and Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun murdered by the Nazis despite her conversion from Judaism. Throughout, Howe poses key questions ("Can you wish a new world into being?"; "How does a change in vocabulary save your life?"; "What does it mean to finish writing a book?"), embracing doubt without sacrificing control. What does all this have to do with a wedding dress? The title refers to the Carmelite ceremony where nuns mark their spiritual transformation by abdicating their physical shells and pledging their eternal marriage to the invisible, the interior, the great empty future, which is un-nameable-in effect God-and represents Howe's own conversion to Catholicism. Her faith confronts and shapes the larger issues addressed here-politics and justice, language and words, and the role of the artist in our increasingly itinerant world-and results in a thoughtful and inspired meditation.
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"The Wedding Dress is an important book for anyone interested in contemporary literature and the role of the artist in the present. These essays on the art enact a vital intervention with race, gender, faith, motherhood, and poetry. Fanny Howe uses Doubt to smash conventional systems of belief and Bewilderment to investigate political injustice and to shape a humane response, displaying an embodied wisdom that is both brilliantly articulate and precariously lived."
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