Around the middle of this book, Cadwallader writes, “The silence that grew between them seemed like a third person” (148). Near the end, we get this similarly poetic description of the same thing: “The silence began as a small and frightened thing, perched on the ledge of the window, but as Ranaulf sat in stillness, it grew, very slowly, and filled up the parlor, wrapped itself around his neck and warmed his back, curled under his knees and around his feet, floated along the walls, tucked into the corners, nestled in the crevices of stone” (263).
This is decent writing, but as these examples suggest, The Anchoress tends to be desperate and pretentious.
That’s true of the book and of the titular character. The anchoress is a young woman in 13th century England who has volunteered to be shut in a small cell to spend the rest of her life meditating and praying in isolation for her village.
That’s great fodder for an original and introspective tale, but the book is held back by more than just repetitive figures of speech.
Though Cadwallader drops in plenty of period vocabulary every now and then, the dialogue is usually so modern that it’s distracting. A lot of this book’s 13th century speech might as well use “like” and “dude,” for all the accuracy it conveys.
Ostensibly a feminist work, it seems, the plot turns out to be quite ironic, then. Besides our protagonist, there are two other main characters–a good man and a bad man. Much of her fate relies on them–she’s often little more than a passive victim of her circumstances. This book wants to be The Shawshank Redemption, but it’s not.
On the subject of movies, you might have heard of the Bechdel Test, which screens movies to see if female characters talk to each other about something other than a man. The Anchoress fails there. She usually talks to her maids about the men that she’s ostensibly sealing herself away from. She’s obsessed with them, in fact. When a man says something she can hear, the next several pages will be devoted to how she swoons or exults over it.
The book’s big surprises are likewise obvious–I figured them out by page 60, and really should have seen it all coming sooner. There’s no profound mystery here.
Still, it’s not without its merits. A major theme in the book is the nature of how we each experience life. At one point, after a period well into her career of deprivation, the anchoress gets a book: “Now it lay still in my hands, and though it wasn’t heavy I felt its weight against my skin, and the slight dimpling of the pig’s hide….I had begun to comprehend objects by the way they felt. The few books I had held in my old life had never touched my skin this way” (158).
When the writing goes there, it’s quite good. But overall, despite its sound and fury, this one signifies nothing.