A wild goose chase through a remarkably unusual world, The Conversions invites both reader and protagonist to participate in a quest for answers to an elusive game.
The Conversions is essentially about solving a riddle, but the search for its answer allows Mathews to do what he's best at: telling stories, and in all respects displaying a love for and engaging with the potential of language.
If you've not read Mathews before, this book will get you hooked; you'll soon want to read his novels, his essays, poems and other pieces, and will soon recognize that he is an American master, one whose works will only grow in stature with the years.
The book is filled with wordplay ... most notably beginning with a gypsy "game" of describing the scene on a ball filled with boiling water ...; the narrator wins the game in what is called "a new triumph ... of analytical poetry over descriptive prose". Songs seem to carry hidden messages. Horse pedigrees are given in exhaustive detail. A man writes and speaks backwards - two languages, in effect, for one reverses sounds, the other letter. Old manuscripts hide clues in the red letters at the beginning of each line - if you only know what to add and where to divide. Authors and titles of books seized at customs, nine civil servants each of whom distorts language more strongly than the predecessor.
Through all the word play is a plot that is entertaining - but not always sufficiently so to motivate one to put the work into reading that this novel demands.
In short, The Conversions has a fascinating use of language in a satisfactory plot; the author is in full control at all times. Well worth your time ... but chose your time well.
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