A little while ago I was invited to convene a panel at Muse Bookshop with two fabulous authors, and this is the second book.
“Book of Colours” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel set in London in 1321. The book follows three people linked by the creation of an illuminated book of prayers. There is Lady Mathilda, for whom the book has been commissioned. There is the talented and a little roguish limner Will, walking as far as he can from a past he wants to escape. Then there is patient yet frustrated Gemma, the limner’s wife who dreams of recognition if not for herself, for her daughter. Each character is inextricably linked by the illuminated book, and none will come away unchanged.
This is the second book I’ve read by Cadwallader, and she truly knows her subject matter. Cadwallader immerses the reader in medieval life, and invites the reader to walk with her through the muddy London streets. This book is a fantastic example of an author getting the balance of detail just perfect. Cadwallader uses enough meticulous research to breathe life into a story, but weaves it delicately into the tapestry of the novel without it overwhelming the book.
Another thing about Cadwallader’s writing that stood out to me again is her ability to create such complex characters who are relatable despite being set in a world nearly 700 years ago. Cadwallader’s characters grapple with universal themes of interpersonal conflict, guilt, love and ambition. Will is a bit of a chameleon, constantly shifting and compelling though perhaps not ever entirely likeable. Mathilda has to wear the more traditional female costume society has prepared for her, but is forced to step up when her living situation changes drastically.
I think Will and Mathilda were interesting enough, but for me it was by far Gemma who stole the show. It was her chapters I couldn’t wait for. It was her little limner’s tidbits that I scoured greedily. I loved the interplay between her warm, maternal side and her unacknowledged but fiercely capable side as a limner. Not unlike the way I felt about the suggestion of the haunting in “The Anchoress”, I wasn’t quite sure about the gargoyle in this book. However like the marginalia dancing in the borders, or perhaps even like the rose in John’s illuminations, I’m starting to think that perhaps a touch of supernatural is Cadwallader’s watermark.
A fascinating book, especially for lovers of the physical book, that conjures a long ago world and the kinds of people who lived in it.
Content warning: mental health, self-harm.
This book had received quite a lot of attention when it first came out, and I was intrigued to read a book that not only has such a striking pearlescent cover, but is by a Canberra author as well. I picked up a copy and it sat patiently on my shelf for ages, but when I got my copy signed at the author’s event launching her newest book, I knew it was time to give this one a go.
“The Anchoress” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel about a teenage girl called Sarah in medieval England. Sarah decides to become an anchoress, secluding herself in a cell attached to a church to live the rest of her life in solitude and prayer. As the story progresses, the reader comes to learn why Sarah has chosen this hard, lonely life while Sarah learns that even as an anchoress, she cannot escape the outside world.
This is an ambitious book that is excellently crafted. It’s difficult to tell an engaging story completely set within a tiny cell, but Cadwallader brings to life a rich story full of engaging characters and moral dilemmas. You can tell the research that went into this book. Cadwallader conjures a world where the opportunities for a woman to make her own life are greatly limited, especially by the risks of childbirth. The day to day detail of this story brings medieval culture to life. In such simple times, even the smallest objects have so much meaning and utility. I think that my favourite parts of this book are the characters that Sarah interacts with, and the snippets of the outside world that she ultimately can’t escape. I also really loved how the discussion of writing a prayer onto an apple played out, and Sarah’s difficulty in interpreting her faith by balancing the wishes of the villagers and the decisions of the priests.
I think the only part of the book I struggled with was the ambiguity of Sarah either being haunted by the spirit of the previous anchoress Agnes, or suffering from some serious mental health issues. I appreciate that during medieval times, the line between mental illness and mysticism was much, much more blurry than it is today. However, I think that I would have liked maybe a little more focus on the mental health part and looking a bit more sharply at the damage Sarah was doing to herself rather than leaving it ambiguous.
This is a fascinating book that really immerses the reader into a medieval phenomenon that so little is known about. Cadwallader’s passion for her subject matter radiates off the page and I can’t wait to read more of her work.