Book Review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_the_anchoresImagine you are in a room, a cell really, ‘seven paces by nine’. There is a door – nailed shut. There are blocks of stone (they will become your friends). And, luckily for you, a cat, who decides to make your cell his home, too. (The cat can leave – and does – anytime he wants. You can’t – or rather, don’t want to).

These circumstances are those of seventeen-year-old Sarah in 1255; the country, England. The Anchoress tells the story of Sarah’s first few years as an anchoress, ‘a holy woman shut away in a small cell,’ who dedicates herself to God and receives, in return, the care and protection of the Church.

I felt a little nervous about this premise – just a room? Inside someone’s head in the room THE WHOLE TIME? Crikey, I thought – there had better be some flashback. It takes a writer wielding a powerful pen to write around such a limited setting. Robyn Cadwallader should be well-pleased with her debut efforts here, for the story is crafted well and does indeed shift from inside to out – I need not have feared for my claustrophobic, reader-self. And yes, there is flashback to vary the story. All jokes aside, it is a necessary variation.

There are two narrative ‘voices’ in this novel – the first is that of Sarah, told in first person past tense. The second is Father Ranaulf, a gifted scribe who starts out in his own small room, a scriptorium he dreams of growing. His story is noticeably told in third person, giving him and the narrative a distant, less-caring air. Which is fairly fitting – Ranaulf is burdened with the spiritual care of Sarah quite early in the book. He visits Sarah and the interactions are gruff and brief. He doesn’t want anything to do with the woman, really, but land will be lost if the anchoress does not have ‘adequate counsel’. I felt sorry for the man when his superior said ‘Your quill can wait, Father’, for I think Cadwallader writes the nearly-surly Ranaulf in all his complexity. All he wants to do is work with his quill and produce beautiful scrolls. Yet he is required by duty to attend to Sarah. In all truth, I wanted to let the man be, with his parchments and ink and admiration for fellow artists who work alongside him. Even if he was lucky enough to be there only because he was a man.

And what of Sarah, herself? Shut in this room, with only two maids through a wall to interact with on a daily basis? I found it hard to understand why she would choose this life, even with the necessary first person narration, and the reader’s omniscient ability to hear her thoughts. The main internal conflict for Sarah is whether she can rise to the mighty challenge of being an anchoress – the anchoress immediately before her couldn’t bear it, and the one before that is buried beneath Sarah’s feet – yes, in the cell. A lot of reading time was spent with my feminist self quietly chanting ‘just get out, just get out …’. A virtual impossibility in the 13th Century, of course.

However, even as I struggled with the decisions Sarah made, I also felt transported by Cadwallader to a completely different time and place; a time of serfs and lords and theology above all else. A time of patriarchy and religion. Although there is a long way still to go in religious and gender equality, I was left feeling after reading this that perhaps we have come quite a long way. In the end, the way that Sarah compromises to resolve her inner turmoil makes for a satisfying conclusion to this story about a very repressive time in England’s history.

Review by Lara Liesbeth

The Anchoress
by Robyn Cadwallader
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9780732299217

Book Review: Purgatory, by Rosetta Allan

This book is available in bookstores nationwide.

According to Catholic doctrine, when you are in cv_purgatorypurgatory, you are destined for heaven. But you require the purification of your spirit, so as to achieve the requisite holiness before paradise is reached. Unfortunately for John Finnigan, the 10 year-old murdered youth of this book, purgatory is also a place of suffering or torment. He can’t touch anything, and he finds himself alone once the bodies of his mother and two brothers, who initially share purgatory with him, are discovered.

Perhaps purgatory is being left alone, abandoned by those closest to your heart. Or maybe it’s eternal boredom, the ultimate lesson in find-something-to-do that mothers have mouthed from time immemorial. ‘It’s so boring out here, we’re all getting ratty … nothing to do but fight,’ declares John on the second page. His journey, whilst in this state, from utter boredom to appreciation of the smallest things − owls, cats, pohutakawa trees − is an interesting one.

Rosetta Allan uses first person, present tense ‘ghost narration’ to place us dead in the centre (pardon the pun) of John’s world. ‘No one knows we’re dead, except him,’ states John in the first 50 words of the novel, ‘We’re the dead Finnigans’. So of course, the next question is, who killed John and his family in 1865?

And so John’s story is alternated with James’. James Stack, whose life seems tough from the start. But not as tough as John’s − John is dead, after all, and James has the gift of life. James’ story is told in third person, past tense. This creates distance and gifts a traditional voice to the events of his life. Nothing really seems to go well for James, who follows his sister across the world, with her woollen, lace collar in his pocket. As the collar disintegrates, so do aspects of James’ life. But all the while we are reminded: he is alive, at least. It speaks to Allan’s skill that important moments, such as how John and James’ lives intersect, are subtlely rendered and not easily guessed. Well, I was pleased by this, anyway.

My over-arching fascination with this book came from the knowledge that these events actually occurred. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was the most recent book to remind me of the richness of our history and how untouched it has remained, in literature, until recently. Or, maybe it is only just starting to be explored in fiction well.

Living in Dunedin means hours can be spent perusing the settler exhibitions at Toitu (Otago Early Settlers’ Museum), Allan’s book is another reminder of the lives of characters in old photos that otherwise could remain historic artifacts of a time long-gone. Allan has explored her family history in a fictional way that reminds those of us from ‘other’ places (be it two or five generations back) that we were once settlers, that life was hard, and the world was a very different place.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

by Rosetta Allan
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143571025