The anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader – book review

I’m not alone in having a ‘busy life’. Anyone with work commitments, family responsibilities, life admin, a cat to feed, a garden to weed, meals to cook, groceries to buy, a car service to book has a ‘busy life.’ So sometimes the idea of putting myself in a small room without anything on that list sounds like a dream come true.

For Sarah of Hartham, the protagonist in Robyn Cadwallader’s book, The anchoress, this is exactly what she did. Sarah is seventeen, living in a small village in England in 1255. After the death of her beloved sister, Sarah willingly commits to becoming an anchoress, a holy woman who encloses herself in a small room built off the side of a Catholic church for the rest of her life. Once she enters, the door is nailed shut behind her forever.

Her cell is nine paces by seven paces, with a squint (a small niche into the church so she can receive communion) a window leading to her maids’ room and a window leading to the tiny parlour where her confessor and the women of the village may meet with her for counsel. Sister Sarah, according to the Rule, a book to guide her, is not allowed to have any contact with men apart from her confessor, Father Ranaulf.

While Sarah’s physical surroundings block her in to keep her focused on prayer, village life creeps into her room. The lives of her maids and the women who come to talk with her bring in the outside world which Sarah is trying to shut out.

Sarah relies on her senses – the touch of the stones in her cell, the scent of the herbs her maid uses in her food, the smell of the women who visit her, fresh from the fields, the colours of her embroidery threads. There’s also the lack of sight outside, so Sarah’s sight is contained to inside of her cell.

I found the story absolutely captivating, and loved the world Sarah inhabited, with monks who were responsible for the beautiful illuminated manuscripts, painstakingly copied and the lives of the villagers revolving around the seasons and harvests.

The idea of blocking the outside world out in order not to be distracted is something you have to learn to do as a writer or a creative in order to bring forth your art. I often wish I could empty my head of the dentist appointments and the dinner menu and the basketball schedules so there would be more space for creativity.

The Me too movement is relevant here, although this book, published in 2015, is set in England, 1255. There’s a strong message that women can do the right thing and still be overpowered by men. Sister Sarah eventually faces up to her past, as she confronts the demands of her new patron, sir Thomas Maunsell.

I loved the focus on quiet – the gentle silence at a poignant moment between Sarah and Father Ranaulf.

The silence slipped through the gaps under the curtain and into the cell beyond. A velvet thing, it seemed. It swellled and settled, gathering every space into itself. He did not stir; he lost all sense of time. all he knew was the woman but an arm’s length away in the dark, breathing. That was enough.

The ending was lovely – for a while I wondered which way this book would end, which choice Sarah would make. The ending seemed perfectly fitting.

I’m looking forward to reading Robyn Cadwallader’s second book, Book of colours.

While a retreat from the outside world sounds beautiful and quiet, I can’t quite imagine how I would manage it. However, we are taking a family holiday next week so I hope there will be lots of time for spacious thinking and maybe some quiet, too. I’ll post again in two weeks.

Wishing you some quiet in your busy lives, too!

 

4 comments

  1. You have inspired me to read this Karen! Sounds like a great book. Not sure about locking myself in a room, but a maid sounds good – or a personal assistant??

  2. I think this book sounds fascinating, Karen, and very atmospheric in its quietness. The excerpt is beautiful and reminds me of Hannah Kent’s writing in Burial Rites.

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