book review, Catholic Church, coming-of-age story, enclosure, evocative detail, freedom, historical fiction, literary fiction, medieval England, meditative life, Robyn Cadwallader, seclusion, thirteenth century
Review: The Anchoress, by Robyn Cadwallader
FSG, 2015. 310 pp. $26
It’s 1255 in Hortham, Gloucestershire, and seventeen-year-old Sarah takes a vow to live a solitary life of penitence and prayer. She is to pray for Sir Thomas Maunsell, the lord who has granted her the living; the churchmen; and the villagers. Only women may look at her — her maids, and any women or girls who seek her counsel — and the only man who may speak to her is her confessor, Father Peter, who must do so with a curtain separating them.
What a simple premise, so simple that some readers might suppose that The Anchoress consists of interior monologues that pale by page 50. On the contrary. This gorgeous, utterly compelling novel proves, once again, that tension resides not in plot points but the conflict between an inner life and everything else. And here, everything else is plenty, starting with Sarah’s motives in renouncing the world.
At first, you know only that she believes firmly in God and church teachings, and likens her vocation to an acrobat she once saw, who risked himself flying through the air, and whom she has privately nicknamed Swallow. She imagines her isolation as a risk too, rather than escape. That’s Sarah’s independent spirit showing — yes, even within the strict confines of prayer and meditation, she roams a world no one else dreams of. Of course, there’s more to her decision than faith or fancy. Add her merchant father’s desire to marry her off for commercial advantage, her sister’s death in childbirth, and a dash of teenage cussedness, and you see that Hortham’s new anchoress is no retiring maiden content to nod her pretty head to those who purport to know better.
To no surprise, Sarah’s story quickly becomes one of justice, questioning authority (divine or temporal), the nature of sin and whether women are to blame for it, and the lord’s rights over his vassals. Does Cadwallader push the boundaries of modernity a little? Maybe; at times these thirteenth-century folk seem to reason from a mindset of a later era. Yet Sarah’s emotional and intellectual growth feels completely plausible — this novel, among other things, is a coming-of-age story — and the transitions are never easy. For all that plausibility, however, Sarah’s native intelligence should have prepared her for at least one surprise that the reader figures out long before she does, but that’s a rare slip-up in an otherwise seamless narrative.
You’d expect that a person enclosed in a tiny space would have an intensely physical existence, and that’s true from the start:
I walked the length of myself in the wall with two windows to my altar, counting my steps — nine paces; that across the narrower side, from my fireplace to my squint — seven paces. This would be my world. I touched the squint, a thin window about the length of my two hands from fingertips to heel and as wide as my wrist. I knelt and looked through. It was so narrow and cut on such a sharp angle in the thick church wall that I could see only the church’s altar, its two lighted candles, and the crucifix above.
The strength of The Anchoress is how Cadwallader carries the physical throughout, in concrete, evocative language, using small moments to full effect. The nails that seal Sarah’s outer door represent, to her, the Crucifixion. She begins to see faces in the uneven surfaces of the stone wall surrounding her and imagines the two anchoresses who preceded her, hearing their voices. Images reappear, as with the juggler who made such an impression on her, and with birds that nest on her roof (birds, as symbols of innocence and freedom, matter here). These metaphors slide gently in and out of the narrative, so subtly rendered I had to remind myself that The Anchoress is a first novel.
Sarah expects that abstention from ordinary life will release her from sensations, desires, and anything earthbound. How wrong she is. A glimpse of sunlight, the nestling of the cat who insists on adopting her, the voices of the women who visit (as well as what they say) affect Sarah all the more profoundly for being unusual to her. Her scope may be a tiny sphere, but it’s jam-packed. As her second confessor, Father Ranaulf (who narrates part of the story) observes in a different context, “A woman sealed in a cell, that was all. How could it become so complicated?”
Complicated, indeed, and with an ending perhaps a bit too neat. But spinning the straw of slight circumstance into narrative gold is the novelist’s art, and The Anchoress is one of the best examples I’ve read in a while.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.