The Purchased Bride by Peter Constantine

Deep Vellum

Review by Walter Cummins

Most novels develop around one or more central unknowns, not necessarily mysteries, but stated or unstated questions that impel the plot. Will some Ramsays get to the lighthouse? How will Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley resolve their impossible dilemma? Will Pip and Estella become a couple? (Dickens dithered about that one.) For The Purchased Bride, Peter Constantine, in his first novel, deprives himself of such a question from the initial chapter.

The narrator opens with this sentence: “My grandfather walks down the long corridor to the room where Maria and the other two girls he has purchased are waiting to be viewed.” In the next paragraph Maria is identified as “my grandmother.” Although the seeming tension of the encounter is whether the grandfather, a modern Ottoman and a conservative Muslim, in his fifties, will choose to bring Maria, a fifteen-year-old of Greek origin, into his household, their future relationship to the narrator reveals the outcome of the man’s decision. The fact that Marie is in that luxurious room also reveals that the tale of her treacherous journey from a ravaged village in the Caucus—the details of which are told in the rest of the novel—will have a satisfactory resolution.

Without the nail-biting urgency of the heroine’s ordeal, Constantine must find a way to sustain interest without a central dramatic question. He accomplishes that in at least two ways. He invents a range of compelling characters whose fate is not predetermined and therefore provides multiple uncertainties. And he depicts the intricate complexities of physical situations and personal dilemmas in rich and incisive prose.

For example, while there is no question that Maria will be purchased by the wealthy Ottoman because of her great beauty and because she will become the narrator’s grandmother, what will happen to young Lita is open. Not only is Lita Maria’s close friend, her purchase would bring much needed funds to their impoverished community, enough to help bring the majority to safety in an established community. Will it happen?

A central irony of the situation is that the wealth and whim of one rich man will determine the fate—literally life and death—of dozens. That man may have no idea of the consequences of his choices. But the possibility of failure is so grim that Father Andreas, a Greek priest with a crucial role is the story, is willing to see his people converted from Christianity to the Muslim religion to save their lives, abandoning concern over their souls.

The contrast between riches and poverty may be seen in Constantine’s descriptions of rooms. Here he reveals Maria’s wonder when she first witnesses a room in the Ottoman’s palatial mansion:

There is gold everywhere in the room. Large vases stand in all the corners and on the tables; they are old, perhaps even ancient, but they look so clean and polished they might be new. Maria wants to raise her head and look around but knows that she must not. She rests her eyes on the lowest shelf of books lining the wall before her. She has never seen so many books. In her Greek village back in the Caucasus, the priest had a Bible and two thin volumes of Byzantine chants, and Black Melpo the Medicine Mixer had the piles of yellowed penny novels written in Pontic Greek. But Maria has never seen beautifully bound volumes like these, their spines covered with strange gold letters.

When Maria’s Caucus village is plundered and burned, those who survive, like her parents, end up in an abandoned encampment:

The barracks are dilapidated; they have stood empty for more than twenty-five years. The walls are made of roughly packed logs and cracked wood blocks, scorpions and beetles nesting in the chinks and hollows. Some of the window frames have been covered with thin, almost transparent oil paper, something that must have been done recently or the paper would have torn in the wind, but most of the windows are only gaping holes.

The essential story of The Purchased Bride is that of Constantine’s grandmother. In interviews, he explained that he had to tell it as a novel because he did not have enough information to relate it as a history. He invented characters and specifics based on a writing residency that gave him access to research in Princeton’s deep resources on Greek and Ottoman history.

When it came to writing the novel, Constantine also had the advantage of being one of the world’s leading translators, with awards such as a PEN Translation Prize for Six Early Stories by Thomas Mann, and the National Translation Award for The Undiscovered Chekhov. He has produced translations of Rousseau, Machiavelli, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Isaac Babel among his many books. His close familiarity with the prose of so many great writers became essential in formulating his own style as he fulfilled his grandmother’s tale by making the telling rich in intricate details.