Pushkin Press, 251pp compact hardback,
£10.99 cover price
£6.47 on Kindle (Jan 2016)
Reviewed by Alex Bardy (Twitter: @mangozoid)
A few months back, totally out of the blue, this little gem arrived through my letterbox from Pushkin Press. At the time I knew very little about the book or the author (or the publisher for that matter), but it looked like a neat premise, relatively short, and was broken up into little icky chapters –something I’m always a fan of– so I managed to squish it into an already packed reading schedule, and am so glad I did.
Released today (14th January), and labelled a ‘YA sensation’, this is a harrowing tale exploring issues of feminism and personal growth, although ironically, Maresi is just the narrator, not the main character.
Set on an idyllic secluded island inhabited only by women, it’s written in the first person, and Maresi is recording her memories and the day-to-day teachings of her life in the Red Abbey, and one particular incident that leads to her exploring her own fears and carving a new path in life: the arrival of Jai, a girl on the run from a prohibitive male-orientated society.
A place of solace and sisterhood, of stern teachings and a certain blissful ignorance, the Red Abbey somewhat bizarrely reminded me of Sarah Pinborough’s The Death House (a place where children are sent to die), and explores similar themes of isolation from the outside world. The first part of the story does a great job of world-building, going through the daily chores and rituals of a convent-like community, and introducing the reader to some of the other female characters who will no doubt play a bigger role in future books in the series. We’re also introduced to Jai, our catalyst for the story who has come to the island fearing for her life and fleeing a world of unimaginable cruelty and suffering led by her father.
Of course, this idyllic lifestyle of daily worship and exploring old books of learning, is soon shattered when the men Jai is on the run from turn up looking for her, and Maresi bears witness to this through the rest of the book.
Written with charm and wit, yet still carrying a certain dispassionate aloofness which I actually liked, Maresi is a great read, and the short chapters make it a quick one too. There is ancient knowledge, old-stylee magic, and even a slice of pagan-type ritualistic fantasy herein, but at heart it’s still a story about women coming together and fending off evil, and that’s as good a cause as any in my book. An easy one to recommend, and I look forward to seeing the next one in the series, Naondel, which is actually a prequel explaining how the Red Abbey came to be founded. More information about this series can be found here.