Monday, March 30, 2020

The Book of Colours - Robyn Cadwallader

Summary: London, 1321: In a small stationers's shop in Paternoster Row, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent book, an illuminated manuscript of prayers, a Book of Hours. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their own desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world.

Set in London just before the Peasants' Revolt - that remarkable, revolutionary uprising of the lower classes - this is a story about power the place of women in the roiling and turbulent world of the early fourteenth century; what power they have, how they wield it, and just how temporary and conditional it is.

Rich, deep, sensuous and full of life, Book of Colours is also, most movingly, a profoundly beautiful story about creativity and connection, and our instinctive need to understand our world and communicate with others through the pages of a book. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I like to go to museums. I actually went to a really cool one recently that had the traveling Pompeii exhibit. There was a surprising amount of stuff for a place that had been covered in several feet of ash! One of the things that I was impressed with is seeing their books—books that had been hand written and had beautiful drawings and paintings in them. This is not, of course, the first time I have seen this kind of book, but these ones stood out to me because of how old they were and also how well-preserved they were considering they’d survived a volcano and all. They were cool. Very cool. However, when you’re at a Pompeii exhibit you appreciate all the things that are there but you can’t help wonder when you’ll see those bodies that are so famously preserved for all to see. Or am I just the morbid one here? Anyway, after reading the Book of Colours, I wish I would have spent a few more minutes in front of those books.

Now. I know that Pompeii took place at a completely different time than The Book of Colours takes place, but when I started reading this book these were the first books that came to my mind (and is also probably the most recent museum I’ve been to). The Book of Colours takes place in 1322, and that is, my friends, a very long time ago. Yes, it is Medieval Times, and I think that sometimes we forget how long ago that was or how different life was back then. I mean, the story about the Pied Piper takes place right around here. That seems like a very far away fairytale, right? Whether or not it is, this is when it is said to have taken place. I’ve mentioned this before, but sometimes putting historical reading in context with other historical events is mind-blowing. I love finding out interesting stuff like that.

So this happened a long time ago. In some ways, life was so unfamiliar then that it was almost unrelatable. Everything was so different, even from what I’m used to reading about when I read historical fiction. However, Cadwallader did an excellent job of creating a time and place. Even the language was such that I felt like I was brought into this world and it was fascinating. When things are so unfamiliar, it takes a certain kind of writer to be able to bring us there. Little things matter and little things really make all the difference. Yes, the overarching life and the broad strokes of living back then are crucial, but filling in the gaps is really important in order to create an authentic feeling place and time and take us along with them. Cadwallader totally did this, and every time I picked up the book I could feel myself transported to that most unfamiliar time and place in a way that made me feel like I understood how different it was, and yet be able to find connections and understanding in a way that I had not felt before when I’ve read books set in a medieval era.

This book had a lot going for it, and one of the things I really enjoyed was the story of Gemma, a female limner who lived at a time when being a female limner was not a possibility. The social structures, whether between male and female or rich and poor were super interesting, and I think made for compelling reading. These people were facing real difficulties, and I think that without reading something like this book it is difficult to understand what life was like. This is a time hop book in a sense that there are two stories going on in an almost parallel fashion, but they are just a couple months apart. This makes sense in the end, and I appreciated the chapter headings being a clear delineation and place marker for what was going on.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the coolest thing about this book—learning about a Book of Hours, how it is made, how it is painted, why it is made, etc. It was fascinating! I loved the descriptions at the beginning of each chapter that discussed different facets of being a limner (whether it be mixing paint, applying paint, considering story, etc.), and you bettah believe that I was doing all kinds of research adjacent to reading this book. It was fascinating! It really brought me new respect for this beautiful art form, and I even looked up a man mentioned by the author who does modern art in the Medieval Style and definitely browsed his online offerings (so cool). Another thing this book did that surprised me is not only did it offer me a great insight into a Book of Hours and the painting that went into it, but it made me reflect on my own understanding of religion and scripture. How would things be different if I had my own personal painting (with myself, people important to me, and maybe my house and land) integrated into scriptural stories? Would I understand things better? Would my worship be more personal? I dunno but this was awesome. I looked at lots of beautiful pictures online of old Books of Hours and it was just so cool. I really enjoyed learning about it. It was so well-researched so well-presented that I enjoyed it a lot.

If you enjoy historical fiction, especially historical fiction that takes place in medieval times, or if you like learning about art forms, especially ones that may not be readily familiar or common today, I highly recommend this book. I think you would enjoy it!

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is some discussion of sex and some occasional language, but it is all rather tame. 

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