Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Robyn Cadwallader's debut novel about a religious medieval woman is surprisingly full of suspense and sensuality.

For her first novel, Australian writer and poet Robyn Cadwallader has chosen an unusual and obscure subject matter. Anchoresses were medieval women who chose to be forever enclosed into a little cell. These enclosures were small rooms that were attached to churches. The job of the anchoress, considered a holy woman, was to pray for her community. Anchoresses followed their “Rule”, a guidebook that taught them appropriate behaviour, the most well known of which is the Ancrene Wisse, written in Middle English in the thirteenth century. It is upon these historical details that Robyn Cadwallader builds up her fictional story.

It is 1255, England. A seventeen-year-old young woman, Sarah, has decided to choose the life of an anchoress. As the novel begins, she is enclosed into a dark, dank stone cell attached to the side of the Church of St Juliana. There begins her life of prayer, suffering and contemplation. She consults her Rule regularly to ensure she is meeting the strictest standards of  behaviour. As the narrative progresses, we get more of Sarah’s backstory. Her sister has recently died in childbirth and her father, a cloth trader, has had some financial difficulties. A more sinister character from Sarah’s past is Sir Thomas, the local overlord. He is wealthy, powerful and is making life hard for the villagers. He had wanted to marry Sarah before she became an anchoress, but she evaded him. Their relationship is further complicated by the fact that he is her patron, a position he inherited from his father, Sir Geoffrey. It is Sir Thomas that pays for Sarah’s upkeep. In return she prays for Sir Geoffrey. The novel’s psychosexual drama escalates when Sir Thomas starts making unwanted visits to Sarah’s cell.

A three hundred page novel about a thirteenth century woman enclosed in a church cell doesn’t sound too thrilling. Cadwallader’s skill is to turn such inert subject matter into a genuinely suspenseful page turner. A sense of unfolding drama propels the narrative along as Sarah is drawn into village, church and sexual politics. Ultimately Sarah’s story is a feminist one as she endeavours to find some sort of physical and spiritual emancipation from within her enclosure. The novel is also brilliantly imagined; the prose dense, rich and inviting. This is a novel to savour. While its subject may be religious asceticism, it’s surprisingly sensual and worldly.

The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780732299217 RRP: $32.99

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