The Blurb (from Goodreads):
Sarah is just seventeen when she chooses to become an anchoress, a holy woman shut away in a cell that measures only seven by nine paces, at the side of the village church. Fleeing the grief of losing a much-loved sister in childbirth as well as pressure to marry the local lord’s son, she decides to renounce the world–with all its dangers, desires, and temptations–and commit herself to a life of prayer.
But it soon becomes clear that the thick, unforgiving walls of Sarah’s cell cannot protect her as well as she had thought. With the outside world clamoring to get in and the intensity of her isolation driving her toward drastic actions, even madness, her body and soul are still in grave danger. When she starts hearing the voice of the previous anchoress whispering to her from the walls, Sarah finds herself questioning what she thought she knew about the anchorhold, and about the village itself.
With the lyricism of Nicola Griffith’s Hild and the vivid historical setting of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, Robyn Cadwallader’s powerful debut novel tells an absorbing story of faith, desire, shame, fear, and the very human need for connection and touch. Compelling, evocative, and haunting, The Anchoress is both quietly heartbreaking and thrillingly unpredictable.
I was on a panel with Robyn Cadwaller at the Perth Writers Festival a couple of years ago, and bought her book on the day as it just sounded so fascinating. An anchoress was a young woman who was walled up in a tiny cell in medieval times, living the rest of her life within that tiny space, praying, fasting and advising the women of the village. I have long been interested in stories of imprisoned women, and so I had read about anchoresses before. I was really intrigued to see how Robyn Cadwaller would bring to life a story of a young woman who voluntarily allows herself to be locked away from the world.
Set in England in 1255, the story begins with 17-year old Sarah being enclosed within her cell. Her door is literally nailed shut. The cell is only seven by nine paces, with a small window to the outside world through which food and water is passed to her, and a narrow aperture (intriguingly called ‘a squint’) into the church. The only man she is permitted to speak to is her priest and confessor. She has two maids who serve her and guard her, who Sarah is meant to guide in a spiritual life.
Yet the world is not so easy to lock away. Sarah sees and hears glimpses of the life of the village, and is threatened by desire, grief, doubt and fear just as much as any other woman.
She is haunted by the lives and deaths of the two women who were enclosed in this cell before her. One died, and one begged to be set free, much to the embarrassment of the church. Sarah wants to be good … but it is much harder than she could ever have imagined.
A beautiful, slow and thoughtful book with some really lovely pieces of lyrical writing, The Anchoress is a rare glimpse into a sliver of the almost forgotten past.