Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages

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Overview

The daughter of a papermaker in a small French village in the year 1320—mute from birth and forced to shun normal society—young Auda finds solace and escape in the wonder of the written word. Believed to be cursed by those who embrace ignorance and superstition, Auda's very survival is a testament to the strength of her spirit. But this is an age of Inquisition and intolerance, when difference and defiance are punishable "sins" and new ideas are considered damnable heresy. When darkness descends upon her world, ...

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Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages

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Overview

The daughter of a papermaker in a small French village in the year 1320—mute from birth and forced to shun normal society—young Auda finds solace and escape in the wonder of the written word. Believed to be cursed by those who embrace ignorance and superstition, Auda's very survival is a testament to the strength of her spirit. But this is an age of Inquisition and intolerance, when difference and defiance are punishable "sins" and new ideas are considered damnable heresy. When darkness descends upon her world, Auda—newly grown to womanhood—is forced to flee, setting off on a remarkable quest to discover love and a new sense of self . . . and to reclaim her heritage and the small glory of her father's art.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Best-Selling Author - Sharon Kay Penman
"Watermark is a powerful novel about the destructive forces unleashed by ignorance and superstition. Readers will care deeply for the courageous Auda, who finds love where she least expects it, in the shadow of the Inquisition."
Laurel Corona
“A story that will keep the reader up at night...”
New York Times bestselling author Sharon Kay Penman
“Watermark is a powerful novel about the destructive forces unleashed by ignorance and superstition. Readers will care deeply for the courageous Auda, who finds love where she least expects it, in the shadow of the Inquisition.”
Booklist
Sankaran deftly illuminates a time of intellectual darkness in this superbly rendered debut.
Publishers Weekly
Medieval France is no place to be born albino: when Auda emerges from the womb “undercooked” and “white as bone,” an ignorant healer's apprentice tears out the child's tongue to keep her from “spread[ing] the devil's lies.” Though her mother dies in childbirth, a small stroke of luck graces Auda's childhood: her father makes his living as a scribe and a papermaker, so she learns reading and writing to compensate for her inability to speak. Together, father and daughter work to make his experimental paper the new standard for France's writing stock (replacing parchment); against the odds, they field an order from the local vicomtesse, who then takes on Auda as her personal scribe. At the palace, Auda grows more independent and finds romance with an artist who saves her from a witch-hunting mob. When Auda begins writing potentially heretical verse about women's empowerment, however, she tempts fate and the inquisition, setting off a chain of unlikely events. Though improbable plot twists detract, Sankaran has created a likable, easy-to-root-for protagonist in Auda. (Apr.)
Library Journal
When Auda is born with albinism in the medieval city of Narbonne, her nurse believes the infant's appearance makes her prey for the devil and mutilates the child before Auda's father, a literate papermaker, can rescue her. Rendered mute, Auda learns her father's craft and becomes a scribe for local nobility, but finding a legacy of a troubadour's verses to copy sets her to writing on her own. In 1320s France, paper is beginning to provide an affordable alternative to expensive parchment, but its use is watched with suspicion by the Church. As the demand for paper grows with Narbonne's diverse population of Jews, Italians, Gypsies, and other travelers, it also brings the papal Inquisition to town looking for heretics. Auda's encounter with the Good Men, Cathar prefects persecuted by the Inquisition, climaxes with the flood of the river Aude. VERDICT Avoiding being either overly dark or sweet, this debut historical by an author who already plans a second novel about printmaking in Italy has potential for book club discussions and will appeal to readers of medieval historical fiction who enjoyed Brenda Vantrease's The Illuminator.—Mary K. Bird-Guilliams, Wichita P.L., KS
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061849275
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/13/2010
  • Pages: 331
  • Sales rank: 1,441,013
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Vanitha Sankaran holds a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch University. Her stories have been published in various print and online journals. In addition, she is a founding editor for the literary journal flashquake. She is at work on her second novel, which is about printmaking in Renaissance Venice.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 23 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 23 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2012

    Entertaining and well written

    A reader's attention is captured in the first paragraphs and remains with the entire book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 14, 2010

    Beautifully written - highly recommended

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. The story is about a mute girl, whose passion is for paper-making, but more so for the potential for revolutionary social change that paper and the written word represented in middle-age Europe. The details of the process of making paper were excellent, and well researched. I used to make my own cardboard out of soaked newspaper for my crazy building projects, and that was hard enough. I can definitely understand the difficulty involved in perfecting what was then a new art. Paper had to compete with the prevalent writing media of the age, and the need was for fine, thin, consistently sized sheets that wouldn't bleed ink. Add to that the art of inserting unique watermarks to each sheet, and you get some idea of the level of experimentation needed to perfect the art. The potential of the new medium for bringing about education and literacy was also brought out nicely, including the renewed interest in old literary work. The obstacle to progress was the rigid, inflexible Church, and the ongoing inquisition. On the whole, a lot of research has gone into this novel.

    The human element of the novel was equally impressive. It is hard to tell a story through the medium of a mute girl, and the author handles this well. The main character had my sympathy all along, and her fears of being branded a witch, owing not just to her lack of speech, but also her lack of color (she was an albino) were nicely portrayed. She nevertheless manages to find love in that day and age. The historical details and descriptions of France in those days also seemed to have been well researched.

    This was a very entertaining read, and I'll definitely look out for more works from this author.

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  • Posted August 25, 2010

    Okay one-time read

    The premise was interesting: paper making in the middle ages with a mute albino child...but the story didn't leave me with a satisfying end. It was as if the author tried to wrap the book too quickly, and the way out for Auda had way too much of a Hollywood ending for this reader's taste.

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  • Posted July 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Fear the Church

    At least if you were anybody in France, circa 1300. Moreso if you are an albino woman. Auda would have been a great character with a little more self preservation mindset and better character judgement. Still, very good use of the dark horror of the medieval church and its nazgul emmissaries.

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  • Posted April 16, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Interesting and entertaining

    I really enjoyed this book. Looking forward to more stories from this author.

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  • Posted April 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A poignat debut novel about a young albino woman

    In Narbonne, France, in the year 1320, a midwife and her apprentice aid a woman in the desperate throes of childbirth. The baby lies trapped in her belly and the mother is faced with a terrible decision - cut the baby from her belly or both she and the child will die. But when the child is sprung from the womb, it is evident there is something amiss with the child who is born with unnaturally white skin and odd-coloured eyes. Believing the child is from the devil, the apprentice flees with the newborn to the river where she cuts out the baby's tongue, silencing it from ever speaking the devil's words.

    Mute, Auda grows to womanhood in a time fraught with the dangers of the Inquisition. Her father, a scribe, skilled in the new art of papermaking, teaches her to read and write. Writing affords her an escape from the realities of her harsh life, giving voice to the thoughts she cannot speak. She aids him in producing the paper which is more affordable than parchment. Whenever he takes her out into the world, she is careful to cover her albino skin with hood and mantle for fear of catching the attention of the Inquisitors.

    When their new art of papermaking comes to the attention of the vicomtesse, she takes Auda into her household as her personal scribe. Auda's newfound independence leads her into trouble, however, when she is accosted by a mob who believe she is a witch. A young artist comes to her rescue and love soon blossoms between them.

    As Auda's writing grows bolder, the vicomtesse encourages her, even though her work is considered heretical and in support of the intelligence and power of women. But the arms of the Inquisition are long and Auda and her father find themselves captured, facing a bleak, almost incomprehensible fate at their hands.

    Watermark is the poignant, multi-faceted tale of a mute albino woman who must navigate a path in a world fraught with intolerance, suspicion, and fear. Vivid with description and details, from the very first chapter, the reader finds themselves immersed in the story. The art of papermaking has been carefully researched and described, relaying a strong understanding of how paper replaced parchment and ultimately changed writing and reading forever. The terror brought by the Church and the Inquisition, is also a major source of conflict within the novel and is believably represented.

    But it is the heart-rending tale of a horribly disadvantaged young woman that is at the true heart of this story. Papermaking and scribing offer consolation to her muteness and state as an albino, which force her to live in seclusion and on the fringes of a society who will never accept her. Through vivid language and in depth descriptions, Vanitha Sankaran nudges the emotion and credibility out of the story, making the reader truly understand the complexities of this turbulent era through the thoughts, dialogues, and actions of her characters.

    Watermark is a delightful, engaging tale about determination, perseverance, love, and forgiveness.

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  • Posted April 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Watermark is an entertaining medieval tale

    In 1300 in Narbonne, France, as her mother dies giving birth to her, Auda is born bone white to the horror of the healer and her apprentice. To prevent the infant from spreading the devil's words, the frightened apprentice viciously rips out Auda's tongue. However due to her father's occupation as a scribe, Auda learns to read and write.

    By 1320, as a team father and daughter try to persuade those who use parchment to switch to the paper her dad invented. Shockingly, a Vicomtesse orders some of their stock and hires Auda as her scribe. At the palace, an artist saves Auda from a witch-hunt, but she begins to write heretical verse about women's rights that places her in further danger from an inquisition that already distrusts her albino skin as that of the devil.

    Watermark is an entertaining medieval tale that looks deep into life in France by someone whose difference subjects her to ostracism and with little impetus potential burning at the stake. Along with the invention of a new type of paper (perhaps the mother of invention for the printing press), Watermark is Auda's saga of surviving as a mute albino with a skill taboo for women. Although believability seems lacking at times, the survival adventures of Auda in fourteenth century France is an engaging character driven thriller.

    Harriet Klausner

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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