One of the many strengths of the novel form, when successfully executed, lies in the ease with which it can transport us to exotic, unfamiliar locations and scenarios without the need for big budgets and special effects, but rather through the simple interplay of the written word and our own mind. Whether from the comfort of our favourite armchair or aboard public transport we can open a book at any moment and be transported to the midst of a medieval market place, walk the streets of Victorian London or even witness intergalactic warfare in distant solar systems.
Or as is the case with The Anchoress by Paul Blaney, we can find ourselves outside a walk in wardrobe wondering why a grown woman has decided to sequester herself there. While this scenario may not seem as obviously dramatic as the previous examples it is important to remember drama has as much do with the interior lives of characters as much as exterior events.
The Anchoress opens with our protagonist, Maggie, already cloistered within the closet; we know nothing about how she ended up in there. As the story unfolds we learn a little of her predicament through her interior dialogue and her interaction between the various individuals who come into her life as a result of the unorthodox action she has taken. The first of these is a pizza delivery man of a philosophical bent who mistakenly enters her unlocked apartment and ends up in conversation with her. Through their initial interaction he soon becomes a confidante who provides food for both sustenance and thought.
Then there is the mysterious neighbour whom Maggie communicates with via the thin partition wall which separates them. This mysterious voice initially sounds like a child or young adult’s, but the probing questions it unrelentingly asks soon suggest otherwise.
The other characters come in the form of Norman, an ostensibly concerned but perhaps self-serving work colleague, an unexpectedly religious policewoman, and as news of Maggie’s retreat from the world spreads, an inevitable journalist. Each of these characters tries to make sense of Maggie’s actions through the lens of their respective positions. The colleague discusses work, property values and material things and represents these concerns, the policewoman represents the state and our responsibilities to it which sometimes come at a cost to us, and the journalist represents society and its determination to categorise our actions.
Blaney presents these characters sympathetically and does not condemn them; they are all shown to have an inner life and unexpected dimensions. This shows real subtlety on behalf of the author who doesn’t condemn these semi-allegorical characters or what they represent. Blaney is possessed of enough perspicacity to realise that things such as the material and social do matter, but it is the order in which we prioritise them which is essential.
It’s clear from reading the Anchoress that Paul Blaney is well-informed about religion, philosophy, mythology, fairy-tales and ritual, as he blends ideas from these areas and intersperses ideas from all these sources throughout the novel. This is most apparent in the form of the conversations between the characters, especially Maggie and the pizza man, which follow the tradition of, and reference, Socratic dialogues.
The fairy-tale themes come in the form of the princess in the castle trope. Over the course of her various dialogues we learn that Maggie’s childhood was quite isolated, growing up as she did in a renovated Martello tower. Although she has since left her childhood home she continues to dwell there psychologically, a prisoner of the consolatory fables she had constructed to aid herself in her time of need which she has now outgrown. Instead of being rescued by a handsome prince as is the convention, Maggie must figure out how to liberate herself from her past. Her seclusion in the closet is the beginning of this process.
The walk in closet is a sacred space which offers a place for self-examination and reconstruction. It is a confession box at first where she must confront herself and the truth of the narrative of her life. Later it functions as many other things, a reference to the famous wardrobe of the Narnia chronicles, a chrysalis for growth, and an echo of the Buddha’s spot under the Bodhi where he resisted the temptations of the outside world in order to attain enlightenment, to name but a few.
The Anchoress is a generous spirited novella which approaches spiritual, philosophical and psychological topics in a refreshingly down to earth way. The character Maggie is an ordinary middle class woman who is quite unexceptional, an everywoman, rather than a wild-eyed mystic or messianic chosen one. This serves to bring topics which can appear forbidding down to earth.
While sometimes philosophy, religion and literature can seem to occupy a rarefied space reserved for the exceptionally intelligent, spiritual etc… here we see they are in essence tools for helping us to make sense of the world around us. I think most people could identify with Maggie’s need to “work out what kind of relationship I should have with the world”.
The message of The Anchoress is a simple one which is frequently ignored in our chaotic capitalist society. Sometimes we need space from the chaos of the world, our jobs, families, phones and facebook, all the things which distract us from examining ourselves and asking hard questions. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for something a little bit different from the crowd. Accessible, engaging, full of ideas and humanity, The Anchoress won’t disappoint.