The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader
Set in England in 1255, The Anchoress follows the plight of Sarah, a seventeen-year-old who chooses to become an anchoress – a holy woman – and spend her life locked in a small cell to the side of a church, devoting her days entirely to prayer. In making this choice, Sarah is forgoing sunlight, communication with the outside world and all stimuli, other than her anchoress rule book and the Bible, for the rest of her life.
Sarah is unprepared for brutal tedium and tortured nature of her new life. She is given two maids who attend to her from a room adjacent to her cell, and her relationship with the women forms the backbone of the story, along with a small cast of other characters who move in and out of Sarah’s life in various ways.
The Anchoress arrived with much hype, including comparisons to Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, and it is being simultaneously published throughout the UK, USA and Australia, which is significant for a debut novelist. This attention is largely deserved, as Robyn Cadwallader is a skilled storyteller. The Anchoress is essentially 300 pages of someone sitting on their own in a small room, and into this Cadwallader weaves a deeply interesting examination of madness, faith, grief, anger and freedom. It is an intimate novel that deals closely with the wants and desperate desires of its characters, and provides insight into the burdens carried by women of that time.
Cadwallader is especially talented at world-building and clearly knows her history because The Anchoress is peppered with fascinating details. She vividly captures the intricacies and sensibilities of the time, but her prose always feels fresh and contemporary. This is a debut Australian novel that sets itself apart from its peers.