A lot of readers are going to love this book, I’m sure of it. Set in early 19th century Ireland, it follows a bunch of women in a rural and highly superstitious community who believe that a baby with a disability is a changeling (a dupe for the real baby, taken by the fairies). Obviously this is a really disturbing narrative, and it gets more and more disturbing as the women turn to the local folk-magic-witch to help ‘get the fairy out’ of the child. It’s dark and oftentimes violent, but Kent also fleshes out the backstories of the women and the entrenched nature of the superstitious beliefs in the community, which creates a weird and powerful dynamic where on one hand you are repulsed by the characters and on the other can sympathise with them (in the sense that you can see they don’t know any other way of living).
I walked the length of my cell from the wall with two windows to my altar, counting my steps – nine paces; then across the narrower side, from my fireplace to my squint – seven paces. This would be my world. I touched my squint, a thin window about the length of my two hands from fingertips to heel and as wide as my wrist. I knelt and looked through. It was so narrow…even if I moved closer to the slit or moved my head, I would see nothing more than the crucifix and candles.
For a while I didn’t buy this book as I was put off by the cover: it has a bird on the front, and I had assumed it was another novel using birds as a metaphor for life (‘learning to fly’, ‘leaving the nest’, ‘migrating’) which I am well and truly sick of. However, the blurb sucked me in. The Anchoress is about a woman in the 12th century who chooses to live in an enclosed stone cell for life. I was totally intrigued, partly because I’ve always been fascinated by the middle ages, and partly because I wondered whether a story set entirely in a tiny stone room could be sustained in an interesting way over a whole novel.
Turns out it totally could! It’s pretty full on. Sarah, the protagonist, is only seventeen when she becomes an anchoress and the opening scenes describe the door of her cell being nailed shut, the crushing darkness, the way it feels like death. Historically, anchoresses were real women who chose to cut themselves off from world and all the sensory temptations within it, in order to spend their lives in prayer and contemplation of God. They literally can’t leave: food is handed to them through a window and people chat with them through another window, usually curtained. Anchoresses would also speak regularly to village women, who would confide in the anchoress of their town, pray with them, and turn to them for spiritual guidance. This is Sarah’s life.