The following review is from the uncorrected proof.
Love, betrayal, fear and suspicion are some of the themes that populate this historical novel, a superb debut for Vanitha Sankaran. Set in early 14th century France, Watermark begins with the birth of Auda, the novel’s protagonist. Her mother, Elena, sacrifices herself so that her infant may live. But it’s obvious from the beginning that Auda will face many challenges:
Onors, the healer’s apprentice, dropped her muddy clump of roots and leaves and rushed to Elena’s side. Seeing a child kick beside its mother’s eviscerated body, she crossed herself…She looked more closely at the infant and gasped. This thing was no child at all but a sickly creature, ivory-colored in skin and hair, white as bone. Even its eyes were so light, the translucent pink of a worm.In a time and place when anyone out of the ordinary is suspected of being a heretic or of the devil, a mute albino girl - sometimes called the White Witch – might be blamed for the weather, for crop failures or livestock deaths. Auda has the protection of her father, Martin, a paper maker, but he is not invincible. Her older sister Poncia is a pious, fearful woman and thinks Auda would be safe if she were married to the old miller, so she makes the arrangements. However, Auda wants no part of it and prefers to stay with her father to help him with the paper making business. She has dreams of becoming a scribe – unheard of for a woman – and even more extraordinary, contemplates writing her own books.
It had come too soon, undercooked, with no color yet baked into its skin and hair, so silent that she wondered for a moment if it still lived. But then it blinked.
“Demon,” she said in a whisper and crossed herself again. (page 6)
Sakaran does an admirable job of keeping the story moving. Several times I thought I knew what was going to happen and was pleasantly surprised at the turns the story took. I was fascinated to learn about the paper making process: fermenting old rags into a pulp and pressing the pulp into paper. The title of the book, Watermark, refers to the technique invented in the 13th century to identify paper by pressing a unique symbol into the paper as it’s made. In this story, the watermark was also used to indicate a secret religious sect.
I’m always interested in stories involving witch hunts and the Inquisition. Medieval Europe is not a place I’d like to visit in reality, but I enjoy reading good historical fiction based on the time period. While reading Watermark, I was aware of the similarities to some of today's extreme religious fanatacism, resulting in polarities within our own culture, and I was reminded how dangerous intolerance can become.
Sankaran has written a compelling novel with interesting characters and has done some good research of the era. She even includes a glossary, a bibliography and a chronology of papermaking and other pertinent events of the time. I'm looking forward to reading her next book about printmaking in Italy.
Thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving met the opportunity to read and review this book.
Vanitha Sankaran holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. In addition, her short stories have been published in numerous journals, such as Mindprints, Futures, Prose Ax, and The Midnight Mind. She is at work on her second novel, which is about printmaking in Italy during the High Renaissance.
Visit Vanitha's website here.
FTC Disclosure: This book was provided to me by the publisher for review on my blog.