Anna Richenda sent me this richly worded story of a group of women living in England during the time of the early Reformation. She asked if I would be interested in reviewing it, and I agreed to read. I had recently finished Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth so I was familiar with the period and thought it sounded really fascinating. I apologize to Anna for not getting to it sooner.
I realized also as I went to post this review, that this book fits really well into this week's Banned Book theme. I'm sure that somewhere, sometime, this book is going to be challenged and some group will ask to have it removed from circulation. In my view, that means more people will want to read it to find out why some people don't like it and want it banned. More on this as I go on.
This book has great descriptive text. Through her writing, we are transported to a time and setting of awful stenches, steaming piles of mud and manure, bone-numbing cold, gruesome starvation, teeth-chattering rains, blood and sweat and urine soaked straw mattresses, fleas, spiders and other bugs, and every other physical hardship that can be dreamt of.
As the story progresses, there are action scenes worthy of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart – lots of blood, gore, pounding hooves, waving swords and pikes and bishop’s staffs; children, horses, pigs, oxen and pregnant women being beaten, whipped, dragged away, burned and hanged; and lots of trauma (as in chopping off) of various body parts.
The chapters are well defined and divided into easy-to-read-in-one session pieces, but with chapter titles that seem, with a few exceptions, to have nothing to do with the text that follows.
I have done other reading (albeit fiction) set in this period, and have spent time literally traipsing through the area of England she talks about, so I from my limited perspective, I’d say that her historical settings are accurate portrayals of the times and places.
All that said, I need to preface the rest of this review with the caveat that I don’t like fantasy, or paranormal activity in my reading, so I really had a hard time with a lot of this. These points are exactly why it IS an important book and why it will be challenged and why some people will want it banned/burned/removed. While I regret to say that I couldn’t figure out the point of this book, that doesn't mean that others won't. It's not my bag, but it should be looked at and available to others who will read and enjoy it. Here are some of my issues:
- First of all, the main character Georgia? Jane? has (had?) many lives (incarnations?) with different names, and has (had?) been killed many times but keeps coming back to be the bearer of the relic of St. Iselda. This rebirth issue made it difficult for me to get an accurate picture in my mind of what this woman looked like…something I find necessary if I’m to read a story about a main character.
- The next character "Lo" is said to be the "Chooser" but I never figured out what she was to choose.
- I never figured out what St Iselda is supposed to do (other than restore these women to power? – power over what? Men?)or when she's supposed to do it or why these women are following (worshipping?) her. Shades of Christ coming to save the world, but then again not.
- The ‘followers’ of the saint (they keep emphasizing “we’re not nuns”) go through quite a bit of persecution on the part of both the Roman and Protestant Catholics, who see any woman as a threat, nuns as whores, and treat women as chattel but why this is any different than treatment of any other group of religious at the time is not really clear.
- I know that during medieval times there was quite an emphasis on appealing to saints for protection, and relics were big big big, but never once in this book did I hear a prayer being sent heavenward to any deity…only female saints.(Right there....that'll get it on the Banned Book list! )
- Every chapter builds to a new battle with some MAN or other, and often involved some struggle to find the relic (which kept getting stolen but without the men realizing what they had?).For the first 150 pages or so, this constant distress and see-sawing held my interest; after that, I began to find myself saying ‘Oh no, not again….when is this ever going to end?’ It went on for a full 300+ pages. And maybe that’s the point? Was her point that for women, this never ended?
For me, all the aforementioned descriptive text provided way TOO MUCH descriptive INFORMATION with too little real plot or denouement. Ok …it smelled bad…it was cold…nobody took a bath…ok…I get it, but I didn’t like having to get it over and over again. And I didn't like wondering where it was going.
If her point was to demonstrate that woman were treated poorly in Merry Olde England, she’s done that in spades. In fact, seven no trump. If the point was to portray the customs and lifestyle of this particular cult of woman, she did that too…sorta…but I found I had to stop in the middle of the book, go to the web page listed in the acknowledgments and read about Anchorites and their practices for any of this to make sense. And this pointer was buried at the end of the book in acknowledgments---not in the front, where the reader could have used it.
Then there’s this whole issue of being reborn. I saw resonances with the tribal memories we saw in “Clan of the Cave Bear” but this was quite different…this was a reincarnation theme that had the main character coming back ….and back…and back…and bringing memories with her and dragging, and I mean drrrrrr….aaaa…..ggg…….ing this Saint into everything. Often, these revived memories appeared to have been drug induced or the result of sleep deprivation, so I found myself not accepting their validity.
As I said, I never could figure out who the Saint was (other than the owner of the blood in the relic) or what she had done to merit such devotion, or what on earth power she had that was going to turn the whole world into one dominated by women where men weren’t needed.
And I never did figure out which of these ladies was ‘the fasting girl’ – I think there was more than one, but….?
As I said, I don’t normally read in the paranormal genre, nor do I read or enjoy fantasy. This book, though billed as historical fiction, reads much more like fantasy. There were times when I half expected Wonder Woman to rise from the bubbling stream of muck! Or a unicorn to come bounding out of the woods to rescue the princess or girl or nun or whatever she was! I probably wasn’t the right person to review this. I think this book would have been helped immensely by putting some background material at the beginning. If I hadn’t gone and delved into her reference on the Internet, I’d never have finished it.
So....If you’ve never heard of Anchorites (and that term was NEVER mentioned in the book itself—I had to discover it on the internet), if you’ve no experience of religious women living in community (I was educated by nuns from 1st grade through college and I still have trouble understanding it), and if you’ve never read anything else about this period, this is probably not the book to start with.
On the other hand.... If you’re well versed in Reformation England history and its religious battles, and enjoy adding to your knowledge of the period, if you like some fantasy mixed in your fiction, you may find this to be a welcome addition to your library. It would in fact, make a great Reading Group discussion book for those who like this genre.