Book of Colours

Book of Colours

by Robyn Cadwallader

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From Robyn Cadwallader, author of the internationally acclaimed novel The Anchoress, comes a deeply profound and moving novel of the importance of creativity and the power of connection, told through the story of the commissioning of a gorgeously decorated medieval manuscript, a Book of Hours.

London, 1321: In a small shop in Paternoster Row, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent book, an illuminated manuscript of prayers, a book of hours. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their own desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world. In many ways, this is a story about power - it is also a novel about the place of women in the roiling and turbulent world of the early fourteenth century; what power they have, how they wield it, and just how temporary and conditional it is.

Rich, deep, sensuous and full of life, Book of Colours is also, most movingly, a profoundly beautiful story about creativity and connection, and our instinctive need to understand our world and communicate with others through the pages of a book.

'Robyn Cadwallader fashions words with the same delicate, colourful intensity that her 14th century illuminators brought to their illustrated manuscripts. Book of Colours brings alive a harsh but rich past, filled with the fantasies, fears, sly wit and tender longings of the medieval imagination.' Sarah Dunant

'Book of Colours shows the depth of possibility a book might hold - all the while shimmering with the beauty and fragility of an ancient gilded page.' Eleanor Limprecht

'Extraordinary ... a real sensory experience ... suffused with colours' ABC Radio National The Bookshelf

Praise for The Anchoress:

'So beautiful, so rich, so strange, unexpected and thoughtful - also suspenseful. I loved this book.' Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

'Affecting ... finely drawn ... a considerable achievement.' Sarah Dunant, New York Times

'Elegant and eloquent' Irish Mail

'Cadwallader's writing evokes a heightened attention to the senses: you might never read a novel so sensuous yet unconcerned with romantic love. For this alone it is worth seeking out. But also because The Anchoress achieves what every historical novel attempts: reimagining the past while opening a new window - like a squint, perhaps - to our present lives.' Sydney Morning Herald

'A novel of page-turning grace' Newtown Review of Books

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781460707050
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 1,141,752
File size: 667 KB

About the Author

Robyn Cadwallader has published numerous, prize-winning short stories and reviews, as well as a book of poetry and a non-fiction book based on her PhD thesis concerning attitudes to virginity and women in the Middle Ages. She lives among vineyards outside Canberra when not travelling to England for research, visiting ancient archaeological sites along the way.

Read an Excerpt



October 1320

Flaying the Skin

If you touch the page, it's smooth and fine. Up close, you can see the pores where hairs once grew. It's no easy task to turn animal skin to this. Goat or sheep, maybe calf. The slaughter, then the flaying, hide stripped from body.

The parchmenter chooses his skin carefully and his work begins: the soaking, scraping, stretching and shaving. Hard labour it is. Nothing fine is made without it be broken down first. You can't have delicate illuminations on a rough page. The lady will forget this was once a beast, too coarse for her, but only because the parchmenter does his job. And does it well enough to be forgotten.

But don't you forget. Flesh made ready for the word. Our Lord, who came as a man of flesh, is called the Word of God, his body stretched on the cross as tight as skin on a frame.

The Art of Illumination

Unaware of the cold, he followed the icy road, turning again and again to look behind him. Felt the crawl of eyes on his back, heard whispers in the rustle of trees, saw shadows creep and dart. Each time, a shock ran through his limbs, had him ready to run. And each time, when he realised he was mistaken, the relief emptied him out, left him ragged. Still, he was sure they were behind him somewhere, following, demanding justice.

At night a black river ran through his dreams, coiling and twisting beneath a moonless sky. He slept and woke, slept and woke, exhausted by the effort, and walked on. He wanted to cry, his chest ached with the need, but that was allowed only to the innocent. Grief was forbidden him.

One morning, a fresh fall of snow hushed the world like a blanket. A companion that asked no questions, it gathered him in. All was whiteness and he wanted only this, to go on walking, thoughtless. At first it seemed reprieve, but it was the chill, settling into his bones and his mind, lulling its danger. As much a threat to his life as his faceless pursuers. On he walked, step by step, thinking he could walk forever.

Gradually, the white turned muddy, ground into slush by feet and hooves and cartwheels. His boots leaked, then soaked through. The road filled with travellers riding horses and farmers driving their loaded carts and reluctant animals. Sound and smell drew him on, tugged at his raw and aching body, reminded him he was a man, fleeing.

It was almost dark when he walked through Bishopsgate, moving slowly on numb feet. His fingers had lost all feeling and had fixed themselves tight into a fist. The new smells, some of them not even food, awoke his need to eat. He bent over, then stooped further as a cramp twisted and dragged his innards, threatened to topple him completely. But this was not the place to stop, and one, two, three people passing by knocked him, not seeing him or not caring, until he lost his balance and fell. He winced at the shock of it. Pulling himself to his feet, he stumbled into a passing woman.

'You watch yourself, you,' she shouted.

He flinched and stumbled back, fear flaring again.

'You need to be indoors, you do,' the woman scolded. 'If you've nowhere to go, try St Mary's.' He said nothing.

'St Mary's,' she said more slowly. 'St Mary Spital, y'know? The hospital. Back out the gate you came in, walk a little way and it's on the right. You'll see it easy enough.'

He stared at her, eyes wide, as if the words meant nothing, so she pushed him back through the gate, onto the road he never wanted to see again. 'That way. I'd say you've come a ways. In this weather, only fools or desperate men travel on foot. You gotta name?' she asked.

He could manage that. 'Will.'

He woke with a start at the ringing of a bell and peered around, instantly afraid, though he couldn't remember why. The call to prayer rang on and, as he sat up, his body returned to him: his legs ached, his hands and feet throbbed, the skin tender. God before food, he thought, as he mumbled some words. He took the bread being handed out; that, and some ale, made the morning seem possible. The last days came back to him and he peered around, the familiar fear returning. The men nearby seemed barely alive, most of them mere bumps in their beds, others limping or bent. He must look just like them. He noticed two monks talking, heads together, one nodding in his direction. His belly clenched. Had men been here, swords drawn, demanding to claim him? He needed to move, hide himself in the crowds of London.

He pulled himself upright and drew in a sharp breath as needles of pain shot through his feet and into his legs. A fitting penance, he mused, though there would never be shrift enough for what he had done. The weight hung above him, stifling and close, shutting off air. But he hadn't wanted to go; it had been Simon's idea, after all, and — He stopped the thought there, refused to rehearse it all again.

Outside, the sky was clear, and the early sun bounced off the frost like a demon, straight into his eyes. It was strange to see blue in the sky, though it did nothing to change the piercing cold of the air. He felt again for his money purse, checked for the hard edges of coins, still there, wrapped a hand around it as tightly as his bandages would allow him, and threw his pack over his shoulder: a few clothes, a roll of parchment, his precious brushes and knives wrapped in cloth. He tried to be alert to eyes watching him too closely, or a body pressing too near, but it was hopeless; the morning travellers carried him back inside Bishopsgate, a tangle of people, shops, stalls, carts, baskets and animals, dead and alive.

He looked around to see if others were alarmed, but they were all too busy, too familiar with it. Bundled through the tumult, he came out into an open space, the junction of four streets. Ahead of him was the widest, longest street he had ever seen, lined with shops and houses, some three storeys high and leaning across to each other as if in greeting. He stopped, caught by the spectacle. A hand on his arm, the grip of fingers. He pulled away, turned, ready to punch and run, but it was only a woman with a basket of foul-smelling herrings. She clutched at his arm again, croaked something about the price, but he wrenched himself loose and pushed her so hard that she fell. Panting, he stumbled on without looking back.

The ground rose toward the far end of the street, and now and then between the shops he could see a cross. It must be St Paul's Cathedral with its new spire that he had heard talk of. He kept on, step by painful step, up the incline. It was slow walking, but in time he reached a second open area where five streets ran together into a broad space large enough, he thought, for football, or even a joust. At one end, set atop a base of octagonal steps, was a sculpted tower about the height of the shops nearby and decorated with tiers of arches, figures carved in fine detail and a crucifix at the very top. Will climbed the steps, drawn by the beauty of the sculpture, and ran his fingers along the word carved into the stone. Eleanor. So this was one of the crosses he had heard about. Overwhelmed with grief at the death of his wife, King Edward I had commanded a cross be erected at every place the funeral procession had paused on its way from Oxford to London. It seemed like a story, a romance recited at a market, pictures sketched in the air, but there it stood, tall and elegant.

Above the general clamour, Will realised one voice was louder than the rest. The man was standing in front of a church, his clothes black and ragged.

'What more warning does our Lord need to give us? For years now, he has sent flood and he has sent famine to make us turn from our sins. Seven years we have suffered, and this is not the first time. Only three generations past, eighty years by man's measure, the sky was covered with a black cloud, blocking out the sun for the seasons of a year or more. Once again, God pours out his wrath. As the prophet Jeremiah declares, the Lord has a strong arm and a mighty anger. He brings justice with a sword. Did he not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Did he not drive his people into Egypt?' With each question, he raised his fist into the air and brought it down into the palm of his other hand. 'Did he not destroy the world in a flood? As he promised, he will not let the waters swallow up the world, but he reminds us, with rain and frost and ruined crops that bring hunger and death, that he is a vengeful God.'

'There'd be food enough if the rich didn't hoard their grain!' an onlooker shouted.

'Do not speak as the fool does. The rich don't bring the rain or the harsh grip of frost. Hoard they might, but in their greed they only serve God's justice. Even so, they will be judged, as we all will be. Admit your sin. Turn from wrongdoing. Do not think that God hasn't seen you in the darkness of your misdeeds. Nothing will cover over your evil.'

Will stepped back, stumbled against the cross behind him, and grabbed onto it for balance. Had the preacher looked at him? Did he know, even here in London, what he was running from?

'Where's God's mercy then, for the little ones?' a woman shouted, a baby in her arms. 'My boy ain't no sinner.'

'We are all born into sin, born of fornication and lust, the desires of the body,' the preacher answered.

'Yeah? I bet you know all about lust, eh? I bet you're still preaching sin when you give it to the harlots,' someone else shouted, a hand at his groin. The crowd jeered, relieved at the joke.

At this, Will was released from the grip of the preacher's attack, and he turned away.

The cross had just enough lacework and carving to give space for his hands and feet, and despite his aching clumsiness he climbed up as far as he could for a better view of the city; the churches and the river, centre of any settlement, would give him his bearings. Behind and to his right was St Paul's Cathedral, its huge grounds filled with buildings and edged by a high wall. Beyond, down the length of a street, he could see the river shining white with ice, the docked boats now trapped in its cold grip. He climbed a little higher, hoping to see London Bridge and the Tower of London, but his view was blocked by buildings. Instead of the rough map he had hoped for, he gazed across the mix of order and confusion, a mass of shops, houses, markets and churches all held inside a great wall. The city crawling, curling and bumping into itself.

Slowly, holding on where he could, he shuffled around the cross until he faced the other direction, toward the sounds of men yelling above the bellowing of animals. From this height, if he looked carefully, he could see carcasses streaked with white swinging from hooks, piles of bloody, shapeless skins, and offal, green and pink and brown and black. The Shambles, a street seething with slaughter. A breeze blew its smells toward him: the shit of terrified animals, the sharp iron of blood. Will's belly heaved and he looked away to his left, toward the magnificence of St Paul's, its coloured rose window, its tall spire and the cross on top almost touching the few patches of cloud hovering above.

At the base of the roof was an army of gargoyles, stone-grown and weather-worn, each one distinct, all reaching out beyond the gutters, spout-mouths open. Creatures dragged from some netherworld and put to work guarding the holy ground beneath. Such proud ugliness, so assured of their right to be there, as if directing water away from the building was merely a foil for their true status. Will was entranced. What minds the masons had, to carve from solid stone such creatures that seemed at once of air and earth. Hybrid beasts: bird beak, wolf mouth, monkey snout, ox hoof; ravaging teeth and horns; flapping ears and wings; howl and snuffle, snicker and growl. He had seen the like before many times, on smaller churches, but here, on the edges of the cathedral's magnificence, they were at once more grotesque and more impressive. Here and there the sun flared on a shingle, then faded as the clouds shifted.

Will startled at a movement, looked again. One of the gargoyles began to stir. A trick of sun and shadow, surely. He focused more closely. The creature's nose was flattened apelike to its face, two horns protruded from the top of its head, bulbous eyes peered around. Slowly, as slowly as stone moves, it closed its mouth, pulled in its long neck and turned its head. Their eyes met. Will's belly turned to liquid. He lurched, slipped from his awkward perch, grabbed onto a curl of stone tracery to save himself from falling, gasped in pain. When he looked up again, the creature was gone.

He climbed down from the cross, caught at the arm of a young boy running past and asked him what street this was. Cheap, the boy shouted as he pulled away. So this was Cheapside; Will had heard talk of it. He walked on.

Will was determined to avoid the river, so he couldn't understand how he found himself at its edge, staring down with it staring back. The sun lit up its frozen ripples. As Will stood, mesmerised, a young lad chased his ball toward the middle, held up his hands in victory, waved to his friends, and though one boy cheered, the others looked on, silent, uneasy. Held their breath like Will.

'Get off the ice, you brat,' he shouted. 'Now. It's not thick enough to walk on. Get off.'

The boy tried to make his way back to the edge, slipped and slid, fell over twice. Then a single 'Oh!' Had he heard something? Was there a movement in the ice? Will couldn't tell, but the boy's face collapsed from triumph into fear, his mouth wide in fright. Will closed his eyes, felt the heaviness creep up into his throat, choking his breath, waited for the crack and the splash. But there was nothing more, only the boy on land, boasting that he was never scared, no he wasn't, God's bones he wasn't. He didn't argue, though, when one of the group suggested they play on the moors instead of the Thames.

Will wondered: would he have run onto the ice, stretched out a hand, dived in? Was that how forgiveness worked? Days turning back like the pages of a book, Cambridge and London folding one on top of the other. The water, the ice, the faint 'Oh!' of shock. The clouds opening, the deep voice of God proclaiming, Here, take this moment, William Asshe. Redemption, they would call it. But there was no crack, no splash, and the chance was gone to find out how sorry he really was.

The dock nearby was empty now but for the gargoyle which squatted, watching him, arms crossed on its knees, penis dangling loose between its legs and a wide grin cracking its ugly face. The round eyes blinked slowly, its throat gurgled with the green slime that lined it.



October 1320

The Limner

Truly, God the Creator is an artisan, measuring the earth and the heavens, dividing light from dark, land from water, shaping trees and mountains, moulding with his hands sea creatures, animals, birds and all crawling things. And finally, bringing forth humans from clay.

One who paints is an artisan humbly following the Great Artisan. As a limner, you must have an eye that observes carefully all of God's creation. You must have imagination that sees visions of what might be, of all that God has created that is not yet known to us. You must have a heart that encompasses order and disorder, the serious and the playful, so that you can understand the delicate dance between word and picture. But these things, important as they are, are not enough. Above all, you must love your work, listen to all it asks of you, let colour and shape, light and shadow, lead your brush.

The Art of Illumination

Gemma was on her way home from the bakehouse when she noticed a man climbing Eleanor's Cross. Usually it was children, who'd get a whack from whoever nearby cared enough about the sanctity of a carved tower, and could reach them. That wasn't her on either score. There it was, set in the middle of this open space, on high ground, and if it wasn't so awkward to climb, you'd swear it was made as a lookout. A few people glanced up, but no one disturbed this climber; he was probably too big for anyone to dare.

Turning left down Old Change and past St Paul's, she paused at Godric's cart to buy leeks. How he'd coaxed them to grow in this weather, she'd no idea; those in her back garden were short, stumpy things that had to be boiled and boiled, and even so they tasted bitter. The mud in front of the cart was worse than in other places, the overnight freeze softening in the sun, making the ice give up its rich mixture of rotten fruit and vegetables, and the human shit that Godric tipped from the bucket before he left at dusk. It wasn't allowed, and he could have walked the short way to the river or used a public privy, but it was quicker and easier to use a bucket then throw it toward the river, hoping the incline, the rain or the dung carters would take it away. Bad business, Gemma thought, because the stench made the vegetables themselves seem rotten. It was always the same, and though she had often vowed never to buy from the vegetable seller again, he was old and sick, and he grew better vegetables than anyone else, so she gave him whatever custom she could.

Behind his cart, Godric seemed to be disappearing, day by day, shorter and thinner.


Excerpted from "Book of Colours"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Robyn Cadwallader.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor, Welwyn, Hertfordshire: May 3, 1322,
1. London: October 1320,
2. London: October 1320,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: May 4, 1322,
3. London: October 1320 – January 1321,
4. London: January 1321,
5. London: January 1321,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: May 8, 1322,
6. London: February 1321,
7. London: February 1321,
8. London: March 1321,
9. London: April 1321,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: May 12, 1322,
10. London: May 1321,
11. London: May 1321,
12. London: May 1321,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: May 19, 1322,
13. London: June 1321,
14. London: July 1321,
15. London: July 1321,
16. London: July 1321,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: Late May 1322,
17. London: August 1321,
18. London: Late August 1321,
19. London: September 1321,
20. London: October 1321,
21. London: November 1321,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: June 1322,
22. London: November 1321,
23. London: December 1321,
24. London: January 1322,
25. London: January 1322,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: July 1322,
26. Aspenhill Manor, Fordham, Hertfordshire: January 1322,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: July 1322,
27. Aspenhill Manor: January 1322,
28. Cambridge – London Road: January 1322,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: July 1322,
29. London: February 1322,
30. London: March 1322,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: July 1322,
31. London: April 1322,
32. London: April 1322,
33. London: April 1322,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: July 1322,
34. London: April 1322,
35. London: May-July 1322,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: July 1322,
36. London: July 1322,
37. London: July 1322,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: August 1322,
38. London: September 1322,
Mathilda: Wain Wood Manor: September 1322,
Author's Note,
Further Reading,
About the Author,

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