Maresi lives in a world where in many parts girls, and women, are oppressed, ignored, uneducated and don't have much of a future to look forward to. But for a lot of these girls there is one legend that gets them through: the Red Abbey. Located on a mythical island and run by the Sisters, this is a place where men aren't allowed. They can't even set foot on the shore and so any girls and women who live at the Abbey would be safe from the horrors of the world. For many, the Abbey is merely a story that gives them hope during difficult times, but for a lucky few it is a reality.
When Maresi arrives at the Abbey, to escape the hunger in her village, she's determined to learn and educate herself so she can spread this knowledge to other girls and women in her village and in other places. At that time it is indeed a peaceful place protected by the Mother. All the girls have their roles on the island and help out as they're near self-sufficient and that way don't have to rely on outside resources – and men. But when a new girl arrives on the island a little while later, she brings with her not only a dark past but also the beginning of the end for Maresi's time at the Abbey.
There was a lot I loved about Maresi. It was a great concept and the story was well-told, with a lot of fascinating aspects about the Red Abbey, the Sisters and its history slowly unravelling through Maresi's education and her thirst for knowledge. She was a fantastic protagonist, one who was observant and kind, but not without flaws, making her viewpoint a realistic and constantly interesting one.
The novel's biggest strength was in its originality and the world-building of The Red Abbey. There were mythical qualities to its origins but we discover that some of the more magical and initially unbelieveable parts of its inception may very well have taken place. There are some things that just cannot be defined or explained, but that doesn't make them any less trued; at least not without the world set out on the pages of this novel.
As a lover of adventure, myths & legends, and using literature to escape to foreign places where you can suspend disbelief, the Red Abbey was right up my street, and I was as hungry to discover all the stories as Maresi was. But as she lost herself in the books in the archive, even learning how to read the old language to be able to uncover the mysteries, darker forces were at work threatening the Abbey's very existence, and I felt that both Maresi (though understandable as a child) and the Sisters were believing a little too much and too long in the saying 'ignorance is bliss'.
Their slow reaction to what was happening opened the doors to some incredibly graphic and horrifying events, which were very much at odds with the idyllic serenity of the first two-thirds of the book. I do understand that this was an inevitable necessity to drive the plot forward but the language and descriptions used swiftly moved a mostly middle-grade fantastical read into a far more intense young adult one, not suited for the same age group. Not only that, but the ending also came very quickly, not properly dealing with the aftermath of all that had happened.
While Maresi started out as an exciting and wondrous tale, with a strong main character that will be able to inspire young girls today, the change in tone and direction undermined some of the powerful messages this books sends out by driving certain ideas through more explicitly than necessary. It was still an intriguing and fascinating read but one I'd recommend more for a YA audience rather than the younger one it was intended for.
Maresi is published by Pushkin Press and you can get your copy from Foyles or your own preferred retailer.
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