Book Review: Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader

Book of Colours…

About the Book:

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.

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My Thoughts:

“…let all of life be there in the book, from high to low, animal and monster, story and joke, devotion and dance, for God the Great Artisan made it all.”

Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader has been widely reviewed by Australian Women Writers Challenge participants since its release in April of this year, and as it fits into the historical fiction category, my editorial area, I’ve had the privilege of reading all of these glowing reviews. I was determined to read this novel, sooner rather than later, and I am so glad I did. It’s taken me longer to read it than what is my norm, four nights instead of two, but I can offer two reasons for this:

1. Despite being only 350 pages, the type is very small so it’s actually a much longer novel than the standard large font novels that typify commercial fiction.
2. It’s what I like to call ‘linger worthy’. Not only was I slowing my pace and taking my time, I was going back to re-read sections, particularly the passages that make up Gemma’s book, The Art of Illumination, which I found to be particularly fascinating and insightful.

“Now, day by day, as she painted in the book of hours, she thought over the words she needed, then added a little more to the pages of her book. She was glad it would be hers alone. Her thoughts, her knowledge, her years of experience.”

Passages of Gemma’s book, The Art of Illumination, head each chapter in a subtle, yet telling, manner. As I already mentioned, these were a fascinating insight into not just the processes of illumination, but the actual art of it, the appreciation of it. Intended initially for her daughter, but later given to her son, Gemma’s intent is to pass on all she has learnt about being a limner, even though her gender prevents her from actually trading as one or bearing the title. As a mark of protest, she signs her name to the book, labelling herself as the author, before gifting it to her son, breaking with custom that places women into the roles of helpers rather than authors and artists. Despite the Book of Colours being set in the early 14th century, I felt such a kinship to the two women of this story. This is not because Robyn has modernised their experiences, not at all, but rather, it’s because she has captured that commonality between women that stretches over the centuries. Fitting creative careers in around other jobs and responsibilities, often receiving less acknowledgement and remuneration for these creative efforts; working under the shadow of men who are attributed as having greater talent and knowledge of relevant matters on account of merely being male. I’m not intending to draw direct comparisons between our society today and that of 14th century London. I’m merely noting this affinity I felt for the women within this story, how tangible their struggles to be taken seriously were and how this struck a chord with me. Both Gemma and Mathilda, despite being poles apart in terms of class, were more alike than each would have realised. Gemma running her husband’s business without credit and Mathilda running her husband’s estate without credit. Each of them chafing at the dismissal and the discrimination that prevented them from being their own masters.

This is not only a story about women though. It’s also a story about class, and trade, and persevering in the face of personal failings. Will and John each had to overcome their burdens, to accept their weaknesses and press on. I admired how Robyn wove these struggles into the creation of the artwork for the book of hours. She demonstrated the deep personal connection an artist has to their work, and how this can reach out and connect artists to each other. This is very much a novel that reveres art and books, and Robyn’s descriptions of the illuminations were so vivid, it made me really wish Book of Colours came illustrated itself. Despite books being largely hidden from the masses and reserved for the wealthy, the artists illuminating the pages believed in the beauty of their work and in the value they added to the words scribed within. To illuminate a book was a privilege reserved for the best artists, and that reverence for working on a book was evident within each of the characters within this novel.

“After a time I began to think about the little girl digging the book out of the ashes and opening it, seeing it for the first time like I did. It’s as if she rescued it, that damaged book.”

With a touch of fantasy in the form of a gargoyle shadowing one of the characters, Book of Colours is a richly layered story that brings to life the ancient art of illumination against the volatile background that was London in the early 14th century. Robyn informs gently, weaving detail into her story with a masterful ability to unconsciously teach you so much, while still maintaining the entertainment value that distinguishes a novel of historical fiction from a book of historical fact. Robyn Cadwallader first came to my attention through reviews of her previous novel, The Anchoress, which I am yet to read. Having enjoyed Book of Colours as much as I did, I won’t be leaving The Anchoress to languish on the tbr pile for too long. Book of Colours is a unique novel of quiet perfection, with a satisfying ending that steers away from fairytale happy ever afters and remains grounded in reality. I lingered over this novel, savouring its magnificence and appreciating Robyn’s enormous talent as an author.


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.

Book of Colours
Published by HarperCollins Australia
Released 23rd April 2018
Available in Paperback and eBook

19 thoughts on “Book Review: Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader

    • It was such an immersive read. I was a little disappointed once I reached the end. Not because I didn’t feel it was finished, but more because I felt like I was going to miss the characters. John’s insert into the back cover of the book of hours was sad, as though he was saying goodbye to his art. There are just so many things to love about this novel.


  1. I have this one on my shelf – I must’ve run out of time for it during the month of its release and I have not been able to play catch up with moving and everything! But I hope to get to it one day so it’s good to see you enjoyed it so much!

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Great review Theresa. Like you I enjoyed the way Cadwallader interweaves various issues through the characters and the narrative. It’s really well done, isn’t it.

    I loved your discussion about why you took 4 days rather than 2 to read it – including the fact that its font size was smaller than is typical in trade paperbacks. It’s interesting just how variable font size can be isn’t it? I wonder what publishers are saying about different readers when making these decisions, and how much paper is wasted these days by these big font books?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m on the fence about whether I prefer bigger font or small. As time goes by, the smaller font is not as compatible with late night reading and tired eyes (despite the glasses!). But I agree, it’s quite interesting because I have a suspicion about font sizes being directly related to thickness. Most novels seem to be similar in thickness, well, looking at the piles of recent releases I have stacked up waiting to be read show this, but the fonts vary greatly, indicating to me that their lengths are certainly not the same. It’s almost as if publishers have come up with this ideal hand sized paperback and what’s inside needs to fit this specification, whether it’s long enough or not. Presentation trumps paper wastage, is my theory. I remember the paperbacks of twenty years ago (I still have plenty of them) with their very thin pages and incredibly tiny fonts. You don’t see those anymore!

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, you don’t see them often, these days. I think they are the c-format? Sometimes later printings of popular books go into that smaller size. But that seems to be happening less frequently.

        You have a point re similar thickness. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at publisher meetings when they discuss things like this, and covers, titles, etc. I agree with you re reading at night … wait until you’re my age! Haha!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: 2018 Reading Highlights | Theresa Smith Writes

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