Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader
In fourteenth-century England, a book is a rare and treasured item, often a symbol of wealth and status. Book of Colours by The Anchoress author Robyn Cadwallader revolves around one such book: an illuminated manuscript of prayers. In a time where work is scarce, renowned limner John Dancaster of London has been commissioned to illustrate a Book of Hours for the reputable Fitzjohn family and in particular for the Lady Mathilda. Dancaster undertakes the task alongside two apprentices (including his son Nick) as well as the gifted yet haunted Will, who has recently fled Cambridge. In the background is John’s wife Gemma who, although not recognised amongst the fraternity of illuminators, may just be the most talented of them all. Gemma is also secretly writing her own book, a guide to the art of illumination.
Book of Colours is an immersive reading experience perfect for historical-fiction enthusiasts. Set in the late Middle Ages approximately fifty years before the Peasant’s Revolt, we can already witness the undercurrent of unease, rebellion and poverty that would come to a head later that century. It is no surprise therefore that the themes of class and entitlement are prominent throughout. Against this backdrop, Cadwallader intimately explores the world of illumination and the power of the painted image. By keeping the plot simple and the pace gentle, the characters and subject matter are able to take centre stage, giving the novel a clear focus and purpose. The manuscript is a clever device to explore the hidden secrets, desires and losses of the various characters and is described in such vivid detail that I could visualise the individual pages and colours. This is the sort of book that sneaks up on you and as it came together to a satisfying and moving conclusion, I realised just how much I enjoyed it.