Text Publishing, $32.99 pb, 240 pp
Transformation is one thing. Conversion is another. With its Latin roots con (with or together) and vertere (to turn or bend), conversion is haunted by a sense of coercion, the imposition of one will over another. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, conversion comes in the form of Clarissa Dalloway’s daughter’s evangelistic tutor, Doris Kilman, the violence of colonialism, and brutish attempts by psychologist Sir William Bradshaw to instil ‘a sense of proportion’ into his vulnerable patients. Sir William gets what he wants. He ‘shuts people up’ under the auspices of ‘the twin goddesses of conversion and proportion’. Converting, for Woolf, means ‘to override opposition’.
Amanda Lohrey’s ninth novel, The Conversion, is filled with intrusions, insistence, and ghosts. An opulent three-panelled, stained-glass window shapes the light and dreams that fall into the deconsecrated church at the novel’s centre, spectres hover, haunt, and flit.
When Zoe and Nick first visit the church, a snake rustles across its steps. Looking up past plaited brass and costly glass, they watch black cockatoos flock around macrocarpa pines, ‘a good omen’. Nick is keen to evade ‘emotional and spiritual laziness’. A therapist, he has written a thesis on the body’s relationship to the space around it. His renovation projects express ‘uncompromising optimism’ and unwillingness to settle for ‘the make-do and mediocre’, and the church promises to release him from a sense of becoming ‘stale and complacent’. He doesn’t feel, as Zoe does, its mood of ‘melancholy abandonment’. Gutted faith, glass, and augury become motifs as Zoe’s life is converted.