The Anchoress, the debut novel from Australian writer Robyn Cadwallader is a remarkable piece of storytelling, fascinating and disturbing. Set in 13th century England, this is an exploration of the motives, fears, needs and ecstasies of Sarah, who at seventeen becomes an anchoress, a holy woman, shut into a small stone cell (seven by nine paces) attached to the side of a small village church. She is expected to live the rest of her life here, in prayer and mortification, communicating through two tiny gaps in the stones, one into her maid’s room and one to the outside world. Supported by a stipend from a local noble and the tithes of villagers, an anchoress enhances their status and holiness, and prays for them, interceding on their behalf with God.
I really enjoyed the information about the practicalities, the organisation required to create and maintain such a system. In medieval England, a resident anchoress – or anchorite – was a precious, holy oddity, regarded, even in a world focused on and defined by the Church, as radical and other. A boon for the local cultural and religious life, an advertisement for how holy everyone around her is, an anchoress is also a drain on sometimes very scarce resources, which she doesn’t practically contribute to.
Sarah, although genuinely religious, has some far more worldly reasons for wanting to withdraw from the life she has known as the daughter of minor gentry, and the reasons behind her radical decision are teased out, as are her relationships with the women who feed and tend her, like a bird in a cage – or rather like a bird in a box: they cannot see her or touch her except for her hand.
I don’t know whether to I am impressed or distressed by the melancholy, oppressive, sometimes revelatory tale – the writing itself is excellent – but the book has just been released here and I read an advance copy three months ago and am still thinking about it…..
Also – most beautiful cover for a novel this year, so far. What you can’t see here is the glowing sheen of the subtly metallicised cover – I have notice customers reaching out to touch it.