Maresi (The Red Abbey Chronicles #1)
By: Maria Turtschaninoff
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams (English Edition)
Publication Date: January 3rd, 2017
Only women and girls are allowed in the Red Abbey, a haven from abuse and oppression. Thirteen-year-old novice Maresi arrived at the Abbey four years ago, during the hunger winter, and now lives a happy life under the protection of the Mother. Maresi spends her days reading in the Knowledge House, caring for the younger novices, and contentedly waiting for the moment when she will be called to serve one of the Houses of the Abbey.
This idyllic existence is threatened by the arrival of Jai, a girl whose dark past has followed her into the Abbey’s sacred spaces. In order to protect her new sister and her own way of life, Maresi must emerge from the safety of her books and her childish world and become one who acts.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to think about this little book, except that it looked at me nicely and asked me to pick it up and take it home from the library. But when I picked it up, I wasn’t really anticipating the contents–a gentle fairy tale style of narration that packed quite a whallop.
I actually really enjoy books like Maresi or the Singer of all Songs that involve a cloister of women hidden away from the world–blame the Catholic in me, I suppose. So what first drew me in was the quiet life that Maresi described that involved the Red Abbey. I loved the simple descriptions of the girls days, the homely crafts interspersed with arcane rituals, the gentle rhythm of the seasons and Maresi’s soft yet honest voice. But I also liked how there was this hidden undercurrent of violence and trauma. Maresi’s comments on the scars some of the girls had, Jai’s dark past, and the understanding that the Red Abbey was a place of healing and refuge hinted at that undercurrent.
The buildup was slow and gradual, allowing me to enjoy all of the simple, monastic things while developing a gradual understanding of Jai’s past and Maresi’s possible role. Although at first someone might wonder why she’s even narrating this, I liked how we’re gradually given a better understanding of Maresi’s own past, and that there’s some supernatural something going on (the doors bit was especially enlightening/creepy/anticipatory). I really liked the slow yet pointed pacing.
And then when that gradual buildup of tension was finally given a face–a ship with weapons and Jai’s father aboard–the pacing sped up enough to maintain a lot of the anticipation, but with enough action that it wasn’t too slow. Truly, the pacing was masterful in this book. The deliberate slowness meant that I was holding my breath more, not less, when the Sisters were trying to fend off the ship, or dealing with the invasion. I also loved how there was a hint of magic woven into the book that felt just right, that fit with the religious observance of the power of women and the Three-Faced Goddess (however you call her, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about).
The book was also masterful in how it dealt with the depiction of violence–just enough to make the point, but with a gentle innocence that somehow made it all the more devastating. The scene with the torture of the abbey Mother, for instance, is veiled with enough of Maresi’s incomprehension to make it almost more intense–Maresi can’t understand what motivates the torture, but she’s witnessing it anyways. The allusions to rape are also treated similarly–veiled and gentle enough that they wouldn’t be understood by younger readers, but that same innocence makes it almost more difficult to read. But that being said, it’s also powerful to read how the women of the abbey stand up to and defy, again and again, these men who are so eager to control and destroy them. And it’s powerful to read how they fail–how even the acts of violence they commit do not break the women who experience them.
The ending was also especially strong–how the very violence that the men perpetrate opens the door to their destruction. But, more than that triumph, I liked how it continued on to talk about how the women recover and rebuild, even with the understanding (at least on Maresi’s part) that they can’t continue to isolate themselves from the world. It was a quick read, but a decidedly poignant one.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.