Merrimon Book Reviews

Cathars being expelled from Carcassonne, 1209

Festa Medivale di Monselice  The Art of Papermaking
Photo credit: Zyance


From Medieval Book Reviews
Watermark by Vanintha Sankaran
by Vanintha Sankaran

Dynamic and inspiring

In fourteenth century France, the horrific circumstances surrounding Auda's birth mark her inside and out.  Auda stands out in a society.   Her albinoism inspires thoughts of witchery, marking a curse and marking her as someone to be silenced.  To protect her from spreading the devil's words, her tongue is cut out and yet, Auda finds the means to communicate, expressing herself in the art of papermaking and through the written word.  She learns to read and write, a skill many medieval women do not have.  Her father makes paper, a technology that opens up new possibilities to those that cannot afford the expense of parchment.   Through her father's business, Auda captures the attention of the local vicomtesse who hires her as a scribe.  In this new environment, Auda's world opens up.  Ideas of the troubadours and especially the trobaritz give her new insights and indeed questions into love.  Can a woman find true love without becoming less?  Auda meets a man who exposes her to new religious ideas, ideas branded as dangerous.  As Auda discovers the power within herself, the forces of the Inquisition seek to root out all that do not conform.  Her growing strength becomes a danger.   New and unorthodox beliefs can lead to burning and death in this society, a society intolerant of difference and unorthodoxy.  In this atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and violence, can Auda discover true love and stand up for herself and her ideas, empowered by her knowledge and hopes?  Will she be able to carry on with the legacy given to her by her father and his art?

Vanitha Sankaran's WATERMARK makes all the tensions and excitement of the Middle Ages come alive, combining meticulous historical research with fictional imagination.  The growing middle class, the corrupt Church and the nobility trying to protect its own power create an exciting background for the story.  WATERMARK does not simply use history as a backdrop for her tale but rather history and papermaking become vital, essential, fully integrated components  of  the very heart of the story, the character's lives and the narrative events.   WATERMARK is an absolute delight for the medieval enthusiast for its ability to make present the vibrancy and dynamic tensions of the time period through a character who challenges that world.  Although she does not hesitate to show the darker sides of the time period, Vanitha Sankaran's medieval historical fiction elucidates the tensions and underlying pressures that make the Middle Ages exciting and much more than the inaccurate, stereotypical, simplistic view of the medieval times as "The Dark Ages".  Vanitha Sankaran gives voice to a richer, multi-layered, active medieval world in which ideas and technology change and inspire forces to counter those changes.

Within this world, Auda stands out for her courage and sense of self.  Intelligent, curious and independent, Auda is a woman with whom modern readers can easily identify.  For feminist medievalists, Auda's fictional story gives voice to the possible dynamics in the unrecorded lives of women.  She rises above the difficulties she faces to strive for something more. In a world where women are defined by others rather than their own desires, Auda makes her own way.  She yearns for true love that will not lessen her.  She yearns for a God who will not treat her less for being a woman.  Auda investigates the new technology of the times.  She is an active participant, not a victim to the forces before her.  Auda's story leaves a mark in the heart of a reader.  After reading WATERMARK, this medieval enthusiast eagerly awaits her next novel, a novel set in the Renaissance, but at the same time, I eagerly encourage her to return to the Middle Ages as a setting in future novels because she captures Medieval times so brilliantly in her debut novel! 

WATERMARK is an excellent choice for book clubs, not only for the story itself but also the accompanying guides.  Supplemental materials in the back include an author's note about the use of history and fictional imagination, a glossary, a chronology of important medieval dates, a bibliographic selection for further readings in history and medieval literature, and an author's insight section which includes the story behind the book, a short history of papermaking, a recipe for papermaking, and a series of questions on 30 topics to assist book club leaders and readers to stimulate discussion and in depth reading of the story.

Publisher: Avon A (April 2010)
Author website

Reviewed by Merrimon, Medieval Book Reviews
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