If you’re on the hunt for something different, a mute albino papermaker in Medieval France is a heroine who doesn’t come along too often. Though Watermark, like many debut novels, seems a bit unpolished, the story is still an engaging one and gives readers an indelible picture of a tumultuous era.
When Auda is born, the midwife’s apprentice sees the albino baby, is convinced that the the devil has a hand in this situation, and cuts out the baby’s tongue to prevent her spreading the devil’s word. As a result, Auda grows up mute. Her mother died during the birth, but her father and older sister love her dearly and are very protective of her.
The main action of the story opens when Auda is about twenty. She lives with her papermaker father, and her sister has married a successful merchant. Auda helps her father with his papermaking and, unlike many women of the time, has learned to read and write so that she might communicate. Given her father’s business, I did not find this wholly unbelievable. Auda’s father not only makes paper, but also works as a scribe so it would make sense for him to pass this skill on to his mute daughter.
The opening chapters of the novel set up Auda’s situation and introduce readers to Narbonne, the town where she lives. We learn that religious upheaval has spread throughout southern France in the form of the Cathars proclaiming things the Catholic Church considered heresy. This has led to the rise of Inquisition activity in the area, creating tension in the town, as well as danger for Auda. Medieval Europe was not a good place to be “different,” and Auda’s family works hard to protect her from scrutiny based upon her muteness and albino features.
The history in this book really works. The author packs in lots of material from the newness of papermaking at the time to the appeal of paper as cheaper than parchment to the effect of the unusual amounts of rain upon Narbonne at the time. All of this detail is worked into the story with a minimum of info dumping, and it creates a very rich stage for the characters’ stories.
I also found the stories themselves compelling. We see the choices made by various characters as the pressure of the Inquisition increases, some more admirable than others. More importantly, the author shows us why characters make some of those choices and I found myself wondering what I would have done in these circumstances because the author makes one understand just how easy it would have been to save oneself at the expense of others. It’s very sobering stuff.
What didn’t work for me was the development of Auda herself. A major theme of this book is finding one’s own voice and Auda’s courage and her path toward knowing herself and what she believes are admirable. However, the author does not portray it convincingly at times and this takes away from the power of the story. For instance, given her background, I could believe Auda capable of reading and writing in a era where few could. However, less believable was Auda’s sudden metamorphosis from semi-educated artisan’s daughter to poet with understanding of literary forms, as well as the voice of a rather polished theologian.
While this book is certainly historical fiction, it does have its romantic elements. These are dangerous times for Auda and her family seeks to protect her by marrying her off to an older, more established man. However, Auda meets a rather compelling young man of her own. The unusually strong ability of Auda to communicate with others again strains credibility on occasion, but it did move the story along, so I found myself accepting it most of the time in this context.
Though Auda is not always believable as a heroine, she is basically likable, and I found the story itself intriguing reading. Though Watermark has its flaws, it’s still an interesting book and gives readers a glimpse into a time we do not get to see very often.