‘She lifts a hand toward the bundle, but lets it drop again. Anticipation is a strange creature. For nearly two years she has waited for this moment, and now it is here, she doesn’t want to unwrap the parcel.’
A skillful master painter called Will flees Cambridge and arrives at Bishopsgate, London, in 1321. He is ravaged by the bitter cold and desperate for a warm bed and a roof over his head. At first, his quest is vague (and playfully withheld by Cadwallader.) All we know is that Will is tormented by regrets and seeks redemption. A faceless adversary stalks him, of that he is sure. Secrets cling to him, secrets that can’t be dispelled no matter how many kilometres he puts between himself and his past.
One night in a local tavern Will hears of the need for a skilled illustrator to help with the creation of an illuminated prayer book – so he takes the job at a small stationer’s shop in Paternoster Row and it is there he meets Gemma, a trained limner or illuminator who is working secretly – and subserviently – in her husband John’s business and is entrusted to copy the holy words to paper.
Gemma immediately distrusts Will. While she begrudgingly acknowledges his skill as a beautiful painter, she also intuits that he is a man trailing ill-fortune in his wake. John, however, is delighted with the discovery of Will’s gift and ignores his wife’s caution.
Running in tandem with this narrative thread is the story of Mathilda, a wealthy, ostensibly powerful patron being held captive in Wain Wood Manor by unknown foes. Mathilda commissions the sumptuously decorated prayer book and receives it two years later. Intriguingly, the manuscript she inspects is the very same tome that was discovered, burnt and nearly perished, by a young girl at the end of Cadwallader’s acclaimed first novel, The Anchoress. Even though the stories aren’t directly conjoined, they inhabit the same Medieval story universe.
For that reason The Book of Colours isn’t a sequel, per se, but more an echo of its predecessor. The mysteries of this novel unravel in the interplay between the two concurrent stories: the creation of a woman’s prayer book against the grimy and turbulent streets of 14th century London and the thoughts, feelings and voices of the three main characters. The two threads, set initially two years apart, unfold at different paces.
There is a magnificent inevitability that carries this trio to their fated ending in this masterfully written book that is as much a story of mystery, suspense, and anticipation as it is a venture into Medieval history.
In writing the novel, Cadwallader researched in the British Library, where she was granted access to ancient manuscripts from the 1300s. Her fascination with the intricate illustrations is evident in the strangeness of some of her discoveries.
‘In the Middle Ages that was very much the case,’ Cadwallader told the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘religious paintings were about telling stories. . . There’d be all sorts of creatures and beautiful flowers and vines, but a lot of funny stuff as well, hybrid creatures, pictures of people doing all sorts of stuff you wouldn’t expect, a lot of sexual drawings.’
Cadwallader’s novel not only gives us a fascinating account of one book’s invention, it also ruminates deeply on the position of women during the Middle Ages. Gemma, for example, seems subservient to her husband John, yet when invited into her mind, the reader becomes privy to her wisdom and creative talents. Even Mathilda, who is wealthy and ostensibly powerful, must live in the shadow of her deceased husband.
Cadwallader gives voice to the concerns of women of different ranks and stations living in a patriarchal world. It is a somewhat bleak, but accurate view of women’s history, revamped now for our contemporary audience at a time when female empowerment is more relevant than ever.
Fans of Ken Follett’s epic, The Pillars of the Earth, are bound to devour Cadwallader’s historical tale, which masterfully handles an ensemble cast bursting with conundrums and secrets. Poetic, unpredictable, and totally immersive, The Book of Colours comes highly recommended from us.
About the author
Robyn Cadwallader lives in the country outside Canberra. She has published a non-fiction book about virginity and female agency in the Middle Ages, a poetry collection, i painted unafraid, and an edited collection of essays on asylum-seeker policy, We Are Better Than This. Her first novel, The Anchoress, was published in 2015. It won a Canberra Critics Award; it was also shortlisted for the Indie Book Awards and the Adelaide Festival Literary Awards, long listed for the ABIA awards and Highly Commended in the ACT Book of the Year Award. The Book of Colours is her second book.