Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff, Translated A.A. Prime (bought) - Maresi came to the Red Abbey when she was nine, in the Hunger Winter. Before then, she had only heard rumours of its existence in secret folk tales. In a world where girls aren't allowed to learn or do as they please, an island inhabited solely by women sounded like a fantasy. But now Maresi has been here for four years, and she knows it is real. She is safe.
Then one day Jai tangled fair hair, clothes stiff with dirt, scars on her back arrives on a ship. She has fled to the island to escape terrible danger and unimaginable cruelty. And the men who hurt her will stop at nothing to find her.
Now the women and girls of the Red Abbey must use all their powers and ancient knowledge to combat the forces that wish to destroy them. And Maresi, haunted by her own nightmares, must confront her very deepest, darkest fears.
A story of friendship and survival, magic and wonder, beauty and terror, Maresi will grip you and hold you spellbound. From Goodreads*.
Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff has been raved about by everyone I know who's read it, so my interest was piqued. Then I heard it was a YA feminist high fantasy, and I just knew I had to read it. This book is completely wonderful.
The Red Abbey, on the island of Menos, is a place for women only; a place of safety, a place of education, and a place for those seeking a better life. Maresi's impoverished family sent her to the Red Abbey four years ago during the Hunger Winter, so she would not die like her younger sister from starvation. For the past four years, Maresi has been a novice who's one love is books. After classes, chores, and supper, she will spend her evenings in the library, which she calls the treasure chamber, to devour the stories and knowledge kept inside the pages. And now Maresi is writing her own book, to be added to the treasure chamber, detailing the events following the arrival of Jai, a scarred, frighted, ill-treated teenage girl, to the island. Because the men Jai ran from were not content to leave her be. They wanted her back. And they came to get her.
This book is a wonder! It's a quiet, steady-paced story, like a calm lake, but one that charms and ensnares you from the very beginning. Turtschaninoff is an expert storyteller, and I was completely engrossed in the tale she wove with her words. I'm not going to talk too much about the plot, because this is definitely one of those books that you need to discover and fall in love with yourself.
Maresi isn't as intense as you might think. There are some seriously disturbing moments in this book - disgusting, horrifying moments - and although I was shocked and appalled by the events that happened, and has quite the climax, it's not a rip-roaring thrill of a ride. But that's nor a bad thing; I was completely enchanted by this story, that has a fairy-tale quality to it, and was enjoying the leisurely read. I was still completely desperate to find out what was going to happen next, getting so exasperated when my breaks at work or bus journey ended, and would have to put it down. Maresi is the kind of story that captivated me so much, and got so involved in the story, that I would feel a little bewildered for a few minutes after putting the book down, having to adjust to my life and my world after being so enthralled by Maresi's.
Maresi is a a brilliant feminist story. It's not the case for all, but some of the novices at the Red Abbey have escaped terrible lives from the hands of men. Men who abuse the women of their household, and don't believe women should be educated or be anything other than submissive. Yet at the Red Abbey, it is encouraged to be inquisitive, to shine, to nurture your talents. Education is a huge focus, and many of the children have doors opened to them by being taught to read, and have history and religion and other important lessons taught to them by the Sisters that run the Red Abbey. There are only women on the island, and for the most part, they are completely self-sufficient. Apart for trade with fishing boats, the women of the Red Abbey grow and make their own food, build their own buildings, involved in all manual labour. Men do not help them, men are not needed. These Sisters are doing it for themselves.
The world building is wonderful, but leaves some things open and unexplained, much like a magical realism novel will do. There is the Goddess that they worship, known as the First Mother, who has three aspects; the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. The First Mother is not completely absent from this story, but at the same time, she isn't a character that has any physical embodiment. She is a spirit that is felt, a spirit that is heard. There is a Sister for each aspect of the First Mother, who can evoke the First Mother's power. We see a few examples of this in Maresi, but it's never explained how the rituals enacted lead to what they do. It just is, and it's just accepted, by the novices and by the reader.
Maresi is absolutely incredible, wonderfully mesmerising, and a complete delight. I am so, so excited for the sequel, Naondel - the second book in the Red Abbey Chronicles and a prequel to Maresi - and I will definitely read whatever Turtschaninoff writes in future. Maresi completely captured my heart along with my imagination, and I'm not sure I want it back.
*Goodreads says that Maresi arrives at the Red Abbey when she was 13. She actually arrives at 9, and is 13 during the course of the story. Because of this, the description from Goodreads has been edited slightly for this review, to correct it.
Published: 14th January 2016
Publisher: Pushkin Children's Books
Maria Tutschaninoff's Website