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The Anchoress: A Novel
Sarah Crichton Books, 2015
320 pp., 26.00
"A Body Is a Body, Created by God"
A 17-year-old girl is locked away from the world, enclosed in a stone room attached to the local chapel. The door is nailed shut. Sister Sarah has chosen not only to take the veil but to vow to the life of a recluse—specifically, an anchoress. Here she will spend the remainder of her life in prayer for the soul of her patron and the village of Hartham. Her connection to the outside world is limited to the holes strategically placed in her cell: one to the room where her two maids live and provide for her needs; another covered by a black cloth that opens to her parlor, to which the village women may come to receive her counsel and where she interacts with her confessor; and finally a smaller slit in the shared wall of the church, called a squint, where she can receive communion.
This strange story, striking both in its premise and its captivating prose, is the debut novel of Australian writer Robyn Cadwallader, who first came across the term "anchoress" doing research for her doctoral thesis concerning women and virginity in the Middle Ages. In The Anchoress, set in England in 1255, Cadwallader showcases her extensive knowledge by building an intricate and detailed world that she keeps accessible through her unobtrusive use of contemporary language. The majority of the book takes place in a stone room nine paces by seven; the only outside perspective comes from the secondary narrator, Sister Sarah's second confessor, Father Ranaulf. Emotionally reeling from the loss of her sister, young Sarah has chosen this life with hope: "Here inside these walls, Christ would heal me of my grief, help me let go of my woman's body, its frailty and desire. I would learn to love him above all others, to share his suffering." It quickly becomes clear, though, that there are no walls that can completely block out the world or keep the past at bay.
The story progresses in fits and spurts; at times dragging, then unexpectedly suspenseful. The slower ...