30 July 2015

Review: The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

As soon as I heard there was an Australian novel written from the perspective of an English medieval anchoress, I was hooked.

For those needing a refresher, an anchoress is the female version of an anchorite - a person who chooses to retire from the world and devote their life to prayer. Instead of becoming a monk or nun though, they choose to be permanently enclosed in a small cell-like structure usually built against a church. They stay there for life and in doing so, sometimes achieve saint-like status. 

The Anchoress by Australian author Robyn Cadwallader takes place in England during the twelfth century when seventeen year old Sarah decides to withdraw from her village and devote her life to worship.

In reading this richly detailed, medieval fiction novel, I wanted to know how a young woman could make such a life-changing and permanent decision, and perhaps more importantly, why.

My questions were answered, and my curiosity regarding the day-to-day life of an anchorite was satisfied too. Prior to reading this novel, I had no real idea about the conditions and routines of these holy men and women, and I was fascinated to learn just what they endured.

My only problem with The Anchoress was a disappointing ending. Having started so strongly, I was deeply invested in Sarah's spiritual and physical journey and I wanted to follow her until her death. I don't think it's a spoiler to say this wish wasn't fulfilled and I don't mind admitting I felt robbed of decades of experience and a deeper look at the long-term impact of the enclosure on Sarah's mind and body.

For the first 3/4 of the novel, I was sure this was going to be an easy 4 star rating for me, but unfortunately the ending left me wanting much much more, hence the three stars. Having said that, I have no hesitation in recommending The Anchoress to anyone whose interest was piqued reading the second paragraph of this review; just don't expect to be in for the long haul.*

My rating = ***

Carpe Librum!

* The quality of writing in this novel is easily up there with a Ken Follett epic, and I can't help but wonder whether the likeness to the era and subject matter left me disappointed when it wasn't a 1000 page epic. Interesting, let me know your thoughts.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with my favourite quote from the novel (14% of the way in):
"A few words from me won't touch your grief, and nor should they. Tend your grief like hard ground, and wait. One day, something will grow; there won't be an answer, but you will see you've found a way to live, and to live with death."

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