Notes from a Tinier Island:
A Review of Maria Turtschaninoff’s Maresi: The Red Abbey Chronicles
By Rashi Rohatgi
I’m pregnant; I sleep all the time, until my neighbours wake me up. Usually they are yelling about football. This morning, they were yelling “Leave! Leave! Leave!” as though gleefully conducting a banishment. No, they were just town-crying: they had secured their Brexit.
Expecting—whether a child or political upheaval—is a good excuse to think back to the stories that have shaped you. Some require mental gymnastics: there was a time when Britain, for me, was wholly drawn by Enid Blyton, which meant loving childish feasts more than the possibility of poor Anne ever getting the chance to do anything exciting. Others require less, especially Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, the feminist fleshing out of Arthurian legend centered on an island that was a strong argument for geographic Safe Spaces if ever I read one.
The Red Abbey Chronicles, of which Maresi is the first, and thus far the only one to be translated from Finnish very finely by A.A. Prime, gives all of us missing Avalon a new female-only, Goddess-worshipping island. Its raison d’etre echoes the fear that led many on June 23 to vote for insularity: the island, and the Red Abbey upon it, serve as refuge for women from all over the surrounding lands. Some come simply to be educated, while others—like Maresi, the protagonist—come to escape from crushing poverty, and still others—like Jai, her closest friend—to escape from patriarchal oppression. Once at the abbey, the girls grow to be women and are called to a vocation. It is a haven of an island, and as islands that advertise self-determination so often can, it tempts us to believe that a watery border can give us control.
Of course, it doesn’t last. Maresi, though she comes from the same crushing poverty as Katniss Everdeen, is a softer hero, but her story joins the crush of recent female-centered YA fiction, in which growing up and finding victory in battle involves a blossoming discernment between selfishness and sureness. It is sparer—there is no underlying Arthurian legend or American analogy, just soul-crushingly familiar violence against women of the type that Brexiteer Nigel Farage discounted when he exclaimed that Brexit had been won “without a single bullet being fired.” Turtschaninoff, a bestselling author in her home country who grew up on C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, didn’t let Farage’s remarks go by without tweeting a correction, either.
Maresi should be the next teen blockbuster franchise, though without a love triangle or much screen time for male characters, it may take awhile to get there. Those still hoping every mist leads to Avalon, and that islands can be havens, read Maresi. My child’s not born yet, and I’m impatient to talk about how heartbreaking this story is.
Maresi: The Red Abbey Chronicles is published in its English version by Pushkin Press and can be purchased here.
Rashi Rohatgi is the Fiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit. View her website here.