The chair Caroline Beck, explains that the two novels Robyn Cadwallader and Cecilia Ekback have written have very different settings: the wild countryside of 1717 Sweden and a cramped cell in 13th century England. However, they share themes of claustrophobia, maliciousness and a complex problem that must be unpicked.
Ekback is originally from Sweden and has some Sami ancestry. A sense of place and culture is a theme in her book and the setting is not a real location but an embodiment of how it felt to grow up in northern Sweden. It took her four years to complete and the setting grew earlier with each rewrite. Eventually it had shifted from 2005 right back to 1717 as she felt that the tensions she hoped to explore had started when settlers had arrived in Lapland. The story focuses on a family filled with amazing women, one of whom, Maya, is the community midwife and must pick apart the story of the body of a man her daughter found in the woods. Their family is new to the area having moved from further south and Ekback reads a section where Maya worries about the ferocity of their new home after she and two of her daughters have almost died in a snowstorm.
Cadwallader is Australian but set her novel in 13th century England after something she discovered while doing research for her PhD. She found a story of a female dragon slayer and eventually realised that it was often bound together with several other stories and given to women who would become an anchoress. She then developed a fascination with these women who would shut themselves away do devote themselves to God. It took her a while to figure out how to write an entire story about a woman who lives in a cramped cell but found that when she started from a character and worked outwards it worked. Her main character, Sarah, is only 17 when she enters her cell, after the death of the previous anchoress, to begin her lifelong total commitment to Christ. Cadwallader reads a section, which touches on the enclosure ceremony before launching into a powerful description of Sarah’s reaction to hearing the hammering of the nails locking her in.
Both novels feature the tension between older forms of religion and the growth and tense control of organised Christianity. Ekback explains that the settlers had brought Christianity with them and become focused on driving out the old traditions and beliefs of the Sami. There is a wise woman who is punished for her beliefs and it follows the way in which the church was used to colonise Lapland. Cadwallader speaks of the religious and cultural climate in her setting where men were seen as contained while women were uncontained and needed to be controlled. She explains there was almost a fear of the messiness of childbirth and the female body. As an anchoress Sarah had to try to deny her body but was visited and consulted by women who were unable to do so as they needed to work and eat and keep their families going.
Cadwallader became fascinated with the fact that Sarah was simultaneously isolated and at the centre of the community, quite literally a physical part of the church. She also spoke of the tension between Sarah’s need to deny her body and the fact that her other senses would have compensated for a change to a life lived in the dark. She tried to write what it must be like to deny your body to be closer to God only to find your body ever more present, with each touch and whisper magnified. Sarah also has to explore her motivations for committing herself to this life. Religious commitment is never a pure and simple choice, there are also multiple threads and Sarah has to spend a great deal of time picking hers apart.
A member of the audience asks Cadwallader how she felt when the book was finished. She did enjoy exploring Sarah’s life but once she had finished she recognised how difficult it had been to stay within that claustrophobic self-denial. She will not be writing a sequel. Ekback however, had written a sequel set 130 years later in the same space. Her next novel will feature a man who is almost Maya’s polar opposite; a rational geologist drilling into the mountain and exploring both its composition and the potential ramifications of the minerals it contains.