Medieval woman's search for a public voice takes on a literal incarnation in Auda, the protagonist of Vanitha Sankaran's new novel WATERMARK (Avon A). Frightened by the newborn Auda's albinism, the midwife's assistant mutilates the infant shortly after birth, cutting out her tongue to free her of the devil's curse and prevent her from spreading his lies. Ironically, this cruel act facilitates the very thing the assistant hopes to prevent. Auda defies her imposed silence by learning to read and write and pens poetry that explores love from a woman's perspective. Her unsettling appearance, inability to speak, and unabashed feminism, however, make her an immediate target of Church inquisitors seeking to rid Narbonne of the sect. Auda's views on the equality of the sexes flirt too closely with the heretical theology of the Cathars to ignore.
The tie between poetry and heresy is strong in this book, forged in links of paper. Auda's father Martin is a scribe who manufactures rag paper, a new-fangled invention that has yet to prove its utility and longevity in comparison with increasingly scarce and expensive vellum. The quality of Martin's paper catches the eye of the viscountess of Narbonne, who hires Auda to copy boxes of decaying parchment documents onto paper for her library. In the course of her work, Auda discovers poems written decades earlier by troubadours. Inspired by the verse and her own blossoming relationship with an itinerant painter, she composes poems in which women make their own choices in love. Impressed, the viscountess distributes one of Auda's poems to the group of ladies which gathers regularly at the castle to discuss courtly love. Flattered to find an audience for her work, Auda fails to realize the danger of having her verse circulating in written form.
The viscountess is not the only one who appreciates Martin's paper. The Cathars, who buy large quantities of paper in order to copy and distribute their religious tracts, become interested in Martin's goods. Martin steadfastly avoids dealing with the sect, but when Auda commissions from a gypsy a watermark of the Narbonne bridge to identify her father's paper, she unwittingly entangles him in their snare. When someone steals her poems and the Cathar tract she has hidden in her father's house and delivers them to Church authorities, Auda finds herself fighting not only for her right to speak but for their very lives.
Ms. Sankaran does a wonderful job of evoking the nitty-gritty of medieval life, both the physical hardship of daily existence without modern conveniences and the inexorable sway religion and superstition held over the medieval mind. She provides a fascinating look into the process of making paper from rags and the cultural resistance that pitted the new medium against the established standard, vellum. As a student of literature, I was pleased to see her evoke the troubadour tradition and the Courts of Love of the previous century (although I wish she would have explored the contributions of trobairitz, or historical women troubadours, a bit more). I found the notion that Cathar theology promoted equality between the sexes intriguing and an interesting way to link Auda, a literate woman, to the sect. Most of all, I admire the way Ms. Sankaran animates the trope of the "voiceless other" to suggest that perhaps the most important truths of all are those that escape articulation.
(And kudos on the book's beautiful cover, designed to look like an illuminated manuscript. Auda might have lost her tongue in the story, but at least she didn't lose her head on the cover!)