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Imagine 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
by Robyn Cadwallader
Published by HarperCollins NZ