Translated by Annie Prime
Reviewed by Eleanor Franzen
Maresi is thirteen or so. She lives in a fantastical realm on an island called Menos, under the protection of the Sisters of the Red Abbey. Men aren’t allowed on the island, although the sisters trade with fishermen. A girl called Jai arrives at the abbey fleeing the murderous violence of her father. She’s slow to trust, but Maresi takes charge of her and slowly Jai begins to open up about the death of her beloved sister and about the threat she still faces from her father’s unstoppable dedication to ‘honour’. It’s not long before sails show up on the horizon, and the Red Abbey is forced to defend itself against cruelty, hatred, and—crucially—the patriarchy.
What’s really at stake in this book is female autonomy. It is profoundly, fiercely feminist, which is why seeing it published as a children’s or YA book is such a joy. It shows a community of women—old, young, middle-aged—living together, working together, teaching each other, even dying together. There’s no tang of man-hatred, either. Sister Veerk and the novice apprenticed to her deal with male traders. Sister O, the schoolteacher, makes a point of informing the girls in lessons that men are not demons to be feared: at one point in the abbey’s history, a man came to the island in need of shelter and help, and the sisters took him in. But the island and the abbey are refuges; they function as physical versions of ‘safe spaces’. A refuge is a place for the vulnerable. In the fictional-realm-as-medieval-Europe that much of post-Tolkien fantasy writing seems to favor, women and children are first and foremost members of that category: those that society deems powerless or targets as potential victims. That the Sisters of the Red Abbey have created a place where they can pursue the power of manual skills and intellectual knowledge without a constant threat to their lives and safeties makes them about as feminist as you can be.
Maresi is approaching the time when she should be apprenticed to an older woman, and part of the book is about her emotional journey: learning what her gifts are and how she can contribute to the world around her. She fled a famine in her home country that killed her younger sister (bereavement is a recurring thread here), and she is terrified of death. The Crone, the third aspect of the goddess that the sisters worship, keeps calling to her, but she cannot bring herself to answer that call. Until, of course, the Abbey is beset by Jai’s father’s men. There’s a truly chilling scene where the sisters have all been locked into the chapel, and Jai’s father leaves his men alone with them. Without ever coming right out and saying the word, Turtschaninoff makes the reader immediately aware of the threat of rape that hangs over the women’s heads—some of the girls are as young as nine. The sacrifice made by one sister, whose function within the abbey community is to embody the aspect of the goddess known as the Maiden, gave me chills, and gives me them again now, just thinking about it. It is the ultimate instance of a woman choosing to use the power that she possesses to help other women. So, in its own way, is the Mother abbess’s choice to greet the raiders with silent defiance. Bluster, violence, power: it all fades in front of that immense, immovable dignity.
At the end of the book, Maresi chooses to leave the island—she wants to return to her home country and use the knowledge she has gained to help other children. The message is quite clear: you can gather your strength amongst people who love, support and protect you, but you must take it out of your citadel if you hope to change the world. It applies to growing up, of course, but it also applies to social justice. Safe spaces are crucial to the development of that movement, but it relies equally on people being willing to bring their principles into the arena of a world that is often as vicious and hateful as Jai’s father. If I had a daughter, I would give her this book to let her know: you are more powerful than you have ever realized. Go ye now and do likewise.
Eleanor blogs at Elle Thinks.
Maresi, Maria Turtschaninoff. (London: Pushkin Children’s Books, 2016). 978-1782690917, 251 pp., hardback.
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