MARESI: THE RED ABBEY CHRONICLES by Maria Turtschaninoff. Book review

MARESI: THE RED ABBEY CHRONICLES by Maria Turtschaninoff, translated by A. A. Prime, Pushkin Press, h/b, 253 pp, £10.99.

Reviewed by Karen Stevens

Maresi was sent to the Red Abbey when she was 13, during the Hunger Winter. In a world where women are largely unvalued, the Red Abbey is a refuge for unwanted or abused girls who are taken in by the sisters that run the abbey. All the women here live in safety, until Jai, covered in scars from the abuse she has suffered, arrives on the island. She quickly becomes a firm friend of Maresi, who takes her under her wing and teaches her the ways of the abbey. But Jai is haunted by her past and predicts that her vengeful father will come for her, and stop at nothing to recover her. Sadly, her prediction turns out to be accurate, and Masceri – haunted by her own nightmares – and her friends in the abbey are forced to use all their powers and abilities to stand against the violence that is brought against them.

A YA book told in first person, the first part of this book is a rather slow start, detailing the daily life of the abbey, how the novices are taught more than they would ever be permitted to anywhere else, including how to read (when Maresi referred to the abbey library as the ‘treasure room’ I knew we were going to get on!) and how the work in the self-sufficient abbey was shared out. In another book this may have been slow and boring, but I was thoroughly fascinated by the details of the world-building and would have happily read more about this.

When the action does arrive, it is tense and dark – the author pulls no punches in what people are capable of doing to women and although not overly graphic, the book may not be suitable for younger readers of perhaps under 12 or 13.

Overall this is a coming of age book, and one that deals with several complex issues regarding the state of an extremely patriarchal society and the value of women. There are some well observed friendships between the novices and the sisters – most women will recognise some of these groupings from their own childhood! Although not one of the target audience, I found it an engrossing, thoroughly enjoyable read and recommend it.