Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel The Anchoress has been met with widespread acclaim, with critics comparing it to Hannah Kent’s 2013 debut Burial Rites. She chats to Booktopia’s Editorial Director Caroline Baum.
(Review by Caroline Baum)
Like Hannah Kent’s award-winning international bestseller Burial Rites, this is one of those out of the box debuts that always sends the publishing world into a frenzy: a startlingly original piece of storytelling from a unknown who demonstrates an ability to create a total, immersive, believable world that is rewarding as much for what it allows the reader to learn as for sheer escapist enjoyment.
Like Hannah Kent, Cadwallader has chosen to write about a singular isolated figure in an unfamiliar past. Unlike Kent, her outsider is not accused of any crime.
I’m going to stick my neck out and predict this book will be one of the year’s highlights and success stories. It has bold reach and ambition, tangling with questions of morality and scripture, but despite its rarefied theme, this is an essentially human story, rich in period detail and atmospherics.
Sarah is a religious recluse – a young woman in 13th century Britain who chooses the life of an anchoress – which means being literally walled up in a cell, with limited contact to the outside world through her maid and her confessor. Following the death of her sister, Sarah forsakes the world to retreat. It soon becomes apparent that she is also, perhaps seeking sanctuary from danger: the threat posed by the sexually predatory local lord, who has made unwelcome advances. All too soon it becomes obvious that Sarah is battling inner demons – she is aware of the response of the flesh, and seeks to mortify herself to subdue her own desires.
While she faces the unexpected challenges of her cell, and of her limited interaction with the outside world, her vivid imagination tangles with her faith and conjures up the spirit of the previous anchoress- Isabella- a mysterious ghostly presence. As Sarah discovers more about Isabella she learns to face up to her own weakness, pride and examine her capacity for compassion.
Meanwhile Ranaulf, her confessor, is finding his responsibilities more demanding than he could ever have anticipated. He is not used to women who counter his interpretations of the gospels.
The scene is set for conflict as Lord Thomas imposes his will and attempts to intrude on the sanctity of Sarah’s enclosure. The plot is interwoven like a fine tapestry with references to the oppression of the peasantry by their feudal masters and the complex inter relationship between the Church and the landed gentry. Class, illiteracy, superstition, shame, all make pertinent appearances as Sarah is faced with dilemmas that test her faith to the limits of her conviction. An erotic undercurrent gives Sarah’s worship of Christ a powerfully passionate charge while every teaching of the church reinforces the notion of woman as the vessel of sin. Is Sarah safe from temptation? Is she pure in thought and deed? Would she be able to endure the suffering of Saint Margaret, the martyr whose life she studies, who died a graphically horrible death for her beliefs?
A film adaptation can surely not be far behind. Benedict Cumberbatch as Father Ranaulf perhaps? Upcoming Australian star Sarah Snook (to be seen this year alongside Kate Winslet in the eagerly awaited adaption of one of my most favourite Australian novels, The Dressmaker in October) would do the role of Sarah justice. If period fiction with big themes is your thing, this novel could be the answer to your prayers.