We were all quiet for a while.
“They say the ground where the men where standing ran red with blood.” I glanced over at Jai. She was ghostly pale but calm. “The rocks which did not roll into the ocean became the foundation of the outer wall.”
“Where did the giant women come from? The sisters were in knowledge house, weren’t they?”
“I don’t know, Heo. Maybe they were summoned by the island itself. Maybe the First Sisters were capable of more than we know. It happened too long ago to know for sure.”
Heo and Ismi scampered down the path, shouting that they were giant women made of moonlight. Jai looked at me with a grave expression.
“Do you think the birds would still wake us? If somebody came?”
The Red Abbey – an all-female community and haven for women from the oppression of patriarchal society. Maresi has lived at the island since her sister starved to death during the Hunger Winter. Most novices in the abbey’s community are apprenticed to one of the sisters before Maresi’s age. Maresi is left behind. She is drawn to the work of Sister O, and the treasure trove of knowledge held in the abbey scrolls.
Written as a testament, Maresi records the events of the previous year: Jai arrives on the island to escape her abusive and murderous father. Like the founding sisters Maresi reads about in the scrolls, the Abbey community is forced to protect itself. Will they be offered protection from the Abbey’s Goddess? Will the island come to their defence, as it did for the first Sisters centuries before?
Maresi is short, but it has such an impact you remember sometimes less really is more. The Abbey protects both the girls who live within its walls, and the scrolls which contain generations of knowledge. For me the suspense lay in this more than in Jai’s storyline. If something needs protection, it is necessarily under threat. The story reads as a record of one incident in the Abbey’s history. The threat to the Abbey from patriarchal society is a many-headed monster. Jai’s storyline concludes, but the values of the Abbey are still under threat.
The religion at the centre of Abbey life plays a huge role in Maresi’s development. The Sisters of the Abbey have roles which personify different aspects of the religion, and different buildings in the abbey are dedicated to these various roles. I love this. It makes the religion into something concrete, which makes it easier to visualise. It also plays a part in the feminist narrative. The Sisters’ roles represent different aspects of a woman’s personality. There are nurturing roles, industrious roles and there is the Rose, a priestess-like figure who represents seductivity. Then there is Sister O, who keeps the key to the library scrolls.
Initially, I thought these were stereotypes of the female personality, but this is where Maresi’s development became crucial to my reading of the narrative. Essentially, Maresi learns that affinity is not the be all and end all when making life choices.
A lot of what we learn about Maresi is in relation to different possible futures. Might she oversee the Novices, or become the Mother herself? Would she or her friend make a better Rose? Is it possible, when she hears the Crone’s voice, the Maresi might die before she finds her calling? The moments which are about life on the island and the socialisation between the novices allow the different aspects of Maresi’s character to be seen together. This is where we see her as a person more than as a Novice.
Maresi forms part of a trilogy, the second book of which I am eager to read ASAP. I am hungry for more than three books. The second book takes place centuries before Maresi. Using the idea of the abbey scrolls, I wonder if the series could go beyond three novels. However, where longer series can run out of steam, trilogies often keep their momentum. A memorable read.
Page Count: 251