In my recent review of Robyn Cadwallader’s The anchoress, I included very few quotes or excerpts to show her writing. Somehow my post ended up in other directions. But, she had some wonderful ways of describing the world she created, and I’d like to share one aspect to demonstrate this.
Locked away in her cell, Sarah had to rely on her senses, particularly hearing, to experience and understand her world. I greatly enjoyed Cadwallader’s descriptions of people’s voices.
Sarah’s first confessor-advisor, was old Father Peter:
His voice, though old and weary, was blue-green behind the black curtain, like the quiet water where the river deepens beyond the mill. Sometimes I didn’t hear the meaning of his words but let them float away, the murmur of flowing water calming me.
Gorgeous, isn’t it? (And this is how I often read “difficult” books – I let the words flow over me, rather than worry at them, and they often make sense, eventually.)
And here is young Father Ranaulf, fairly early in Sarah’s enclosure when she is starting to get into self-destructive behaviours, believing she’s following the advice of a past (now dead) anchoress:
Agnes? Guiding you? What do you mean? His voice had the edge of a plough blade, blunt but cutting.
Father Ranaulf for much of the novel comes across to Sarah as inflexible – because he is – but he starts to shift as people help him understand, empathise with, Sarah and her life. So, here he is later in the novel bringing her some, well, rather subversive papers:
Father Ranaulf’s voice sounds like stone that will not crumble. I have resented it, wanted to shout and scream at it, shake his dry words until they lose their order and their certainty. But that day, the day he brought the pages, his voice had tiny grains in it, specks of sand that shifted as he spoke, as if uncertain where to settle.
Of course, it’s not just the sound of the voices that are important to Sarah, but the words themselves. Well into the novel, Sarah hears the village men talking in the church about the Lord’s plans for using the common land that is critical to their livelihood:
Words were coloured grey and brown and black, with quick touches of red. Gradually, I recognised the men’s voices from what their wives had told me about them.
And one last one. It comes when Sarah is starting to realise what the Lord, Thomas, has been up to:
Thomas had returned to Friaston, but his words clung to the stones.
Given the importance of stones in the mediaeval world, the consistency of this imagery works really well to evoke Sarah’s world and her experience of it. It also contributes to our understanding of her character. Similarly, Cadwallader uses birds throughout the novel to convey some of her themes – freedom from body, freedom of the spirit, aspiration and risk. But that’s another story, which I’ll leave for you to discover.