Quiet, assured debut novel set in medieval England, concerning a young woman’s entry into the religious life—one as tumultuous as anything on the outside.
Early on in Australian writer Cadwallader’s narrative, we learn that young Sarah, still a teenager, has lost her sister in childbirth: “Emma didn’t speak, just looked at me, her eyes fading. Blood dripped, then ran.” The elegant understatement of that terrible moment speaks to Cadwallader’s approach throughout: the England of the mid-13th century is a place of rupture, oppression, intolerance, and violence outside, but within the tight-holding walls of the Midlands church and the “rough lodging” it offers, little of that outside world can enter. Even so, in time, Sarah, though seeking escape, engages with that world—and she must, for it presses in on all sides. And besides, she’s not quite cut out for the isolation. Cadwallader is a poet of loneliness; few writers have captured so completely the essential madness that accompanies hermitage, the grayness and sameness of each and every day: “The stones were faces that came out when my candle was alight, some laughing, some staring, some as sad as me.” She is also very good at describing the power relations that inhere in religious hierarchy (“Sister, I’m your confessor and guide. You are to obey me in all things, as your Rule says”) without resorting to too-easy anachronisms, though Sarah does have her protofeminist moments. In a time when self-assertion was tantamount to sin, Cadwallader’s language and tone seem just right. Readers may wish there were a little more action to move the story along, but this is an appropriately contemplative piece that is kin less to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries than to Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations as imaginings of medieval faith and the faithful.
Sympathetic, fully realized characters and good use of period details make this a winning work of historical fiction.