I am telling the story to make sure the Abbey never forgets. But also so that I can fully grasp what happened. Reading has always helped me to understand the world better. I hope the same applies to writing.
—Maresi, by Maria Turtschaninoff, translated by A.A. Prime
The Red Abbey is remote, largely self-sufficient, and run entirely by women. Girls are sent there from all over: some are sent because of the unparalleled education they’ll receive there, some are sent to escape famine in their own communities, and some girls make their way there on their own, as runaways. The Abbey welcomes them all with open arms.
Maresi, our thirteen-year-old narrator, has been there for a few years—she came from a loving, supportive family, but a poor one. After a particularly awful winter in which Maresi’s younger sister starved to death, her parents felt that the Abbey would be able to provide for her in ways that they could not—she misses them, but she loves her life at the Abbey.
Jai, the newest arrival, comes from a very different—darker and more dangerous—background. And, unfortunately for everyone at Red Abbey, Jai’s past is coming for her.
The first half of the book is extremely quiet: Maresi introduces Jai (and us) to the island, and Jai slowly opens up about the string of events that led to her arrival at the Abbey. We get to know everyone at the Abbey, from the youngest to the oldest; we join their routines; we wonder, with Maresi, if she will be tapped to more specifically serve one of the Houses that comprise the Abbey. Her love for the place, her love for the Sisters and for her fellow novices, her love of learning and books and stories and knowledge is so strong and so ingrained that her words almost glow.
Which, of course, makes the violence in the second half of the book that much more horrifying and painful.
Maresi is very much about the experience of being female in the world—it’s honest and forthright about the challenges, while also celebrating the strength and power of sisterhood. But under all of that is a question: Which accomplishes more, staying cloistered in an idyllic world of one’s own making, or working out in the larger world in order to make it a better place?
Turtschaninoff doesn’t ultimately make a judgement on that front—Maresi makes a choice for herself, but it’s clear that both options are necessary. We need safe places to learn, to heal, and to recharge—and then we need to take what we’ve learned out into the world.
In other words, we need to try to bring aspects of the idyllic out into the world, rather than to create a small patch of perfection and hide it behind a wall. But, again, both sides of the work are equally important—without the work at the Abbey, there is no place for learning in safety, and without the work out in the world, the Abbey would be an ultimately selfish endeavour.
Highly recommended to fans of Robin McKinley’s Chalice.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.