Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: Watermark by Vanitha Sankaran

Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages
From the Back Cover:

The daughter of a papermaker in a small French village in the year 1320 - mute from birth and forced to shun normal society - young Auda finds solace and escape in the wonder of the written word. Believed to be cursed by those who embrace ignorance and superstition, Auda's very survival is a testament to the strength of her spirit. But this is an age of Inquisition and intolerance, when difference and defiance are punishable "sins" and new ideas are considered damnable heresy. When darkness descends upon her world, Auda - newly grown to womanhood - is forced to flee, setting off on a remarkable quest to discover love and a new sense of self...and to reclaim her heritage and the small glory of her father's art.

In this impressive debut novel, Vanitha Sankaran crafts a very original tale centered around a very different kind of heroine. Auda is born an albino and the story opens with the gruesome circumstances of her birth, where a decision made by a superstitious midwife's apprentice renders her mute for life.

Fast forward twenty years to Auda as a woman grown. Auda lives and works with her father, a papermaker. Her father and sister have done a good job of protecting Auda from the outside world, but her sister has recently married and moved out of her father's home, and things are changing in Auda's world. Auda can't speak, but she can read and write, and in addition to copying texts for her father, she writes stories of her own and dreams of sharing them with the world. But her sister has other plans for her, to see her married and to remain safely hidden away.

What form of story do you like best?

This is what Auda writes on a little slip of paper, the first question she wants to ask of the man her sister has arranged for her to marry, and it was the moment I lost my heart to her. It's also the moment I realized I was in trouble, because people like Auda living in times like those didn't have happily ever afters. I had to tell myself not to get attached to her and her hopes for a full and happy life.

And oh, how Auda yearns to live a full and happy life. She's intelligent and inquisitive, and has reached the point in her life where she's ready to stretch her wings. But Auda's kind heart combined with her sheltered existance keep her from fearing the cruelty of others, and thus she goes along a little naively, unaware that seemingly innocent actions can draw unwanted attention. Which is unfortunate, for the town of Narbonne is on edge. An endless season of rain has ruined crops. Fear of heresy is sweeping through the country and priests are flocking to Narbonne to root out the cause of the evil weather. As heretic pamphlets begin surfacing more frequently in the town, the Inquisition turns its eyes to those who write, and to those who make the paper for them to write upon.

If a man hears an evil idea, unless his mind is bent toward evil, he will not dwell on it, will forget it before long. But if that same idea is written, he will be drawn back to it, again and again. Evil has a temptation and man is bent toward it.

Auda's father comes under heavy suspicion and that means trouble for Auda. The story is compelling and well-paced, leading up to some pretty intense climactic scenes that keep the reader hooked right up to the sweet and satisfying conclusion. There were a couple of scenes that seemed to have been written specifically to draw attention to little nuggets of research the author found interesting (as explained in the author's note), but for me they came off as awkward rather than enlightening, since they didn't really have anything to do with the story. Minor quibbles, though. I thought this was a refreshingly original novel, fast-paced and very enjoyable with touches of poetry and story-telling. I loved the setting of this book, in the little seaside town of Narbonne rather than in a big cosmopolitan city like Paris and I enjoyed reading a story about someone who lives in the shadow of the lord of the land, rather than reading another story from the point of view of the nobility. Highly recommended for anyone looking for something different in historical fiction and interested in getting a glimpse of facets of medieval life not often explored.

Rating:  4.5 Stars out of 5


  1. I struggled with getting into this one and too many others were waiting so I returned it to the library. Will have to try again.

  2. Great review! I enjoyed it also,not as one of my very favourites, but very interesting in the sense that it`s and incredibly different kind of historical fiction read. Thanks-(I updated your stats over at my challenge:)

  3. I've read so many different reviews on this book that I'm confused. The library has at last got its copy so I am picking it up.

  4. People seem to either really like it or really dislike it. I just thought it was different and it really stood out for me.

  5. Excellent review! I'd love to read this book, so I do hope I win it in your giveaway today!


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