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Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages
By Vanitha Sankaran
Harper Collins, 2010

Review by Michaela de La Chesnaye des Bois

The year is 1320 and Auda, a twenty-year-old albino mute, lives with her widowed father in the small French village of Narbonne. Her father is a papermaker and scribe, and he has taught Auda and her sister Poncia to read and write. Just six months earlier, Poncia married well, but Martin still needs to support Auda and himself so he continues making paper and copying books, as well as writing letters in the marketplace. Auda helps her father make paper and, for her own enjoyment, makes up stories.

But now the Inquisition is in the region and the days of their simple existence are numbered. In the nearby town of Carcassonne, heretics are burned at the stake. The Church stops short of forbidding the making of paper, but does not allow papermakers to sell their wares in the marketplace. Paper, after all, is the means by which heretics spread their lies. Auda, with her white skin and hair, is thought by some to be a witch. Poncia, in a bid to make her sister safe, hosts a dinner party so that a potential husband for Auda can meet her. The match between Auda and the older, overweight miller does not come to pass, but a chance meeting at the dinner does lead to safety for Auda: she is employed as a scribe by the town’s Vicomtesse.

While helping at her brother-in-law’s spice stall in the marketplace, Auda meets Jamie, an aspiring artist. With Jamie’s burgeoning love and admiration, and the safety of life in the palace, Auda begins to believe that happiness might be hers. But Jehan, Poncia’s husband, has secret meetings with strangers wearing yellow crosses on their cloaks, paper with Martin’s watermark is found in the possession of a heretic, and Auda’s feminist-leaning writing finds its way into the wrong hands.

Watermark is an interesting story, well told. It is informative, as well, explaining the papermaking process and including excerpts of period writings. It provides a window onto Fourteenth Century French life and is faithful to the real-life chronology of the time. The characters, however, remain two-dimensional; the reader is never quite able to fully grasp them. And Auda, who seems like an intelligent woman, makes several surprisingly bad choices. Regardless, Watermark provides several hours of educational diversion.

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This Month's Reviewed Book is Available from Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages by Vanitha Sankaran

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