Book of Colours

Who doesn’t love a determined, self-sufficient heroine? One that doesn’t need saving from her male counterpart. Or even from herself—a common theme in feminist novels nowadays.

Tangent aside, a female lead who knows what she wants, accepts her hurdles, and yet still strategically perseveres towards achieving her passion is someone born for that. We often say talent is inherent. But everyone is talented in some way or the other. What matters is how much they invest in honing that talent. That’s the difference between Van Gogh and Random Dude. I bring this all up now because I’ve just read Book of Colours, an excellent historical fiction that celebrates a woman artist—or in this case, a limner.

Cover of 'Book of Colours' by Robyn Cadwallader

I know how that sounds, but it’s not what you’d expect. It’s not the story of a young girl who finds her passion for art, grows up facing many challenges, and finally gets the recognition she deserves. That’s the equivalent of the ‘damsel in distress saved by the hero’ narrative—the typical, proven theory that satisfies the masses on any given day. Though such a plot has its place in novel writing, this one is way different.

It’s about a woman who’s painted all her life—from childhood, assisting her father, also a limner. Everyone around her knows her capabilities. However, she’s a 14th-century woman in England. Women of that period weren’t even allowed to read, let alone paint. This is the story of Gemma, the brilliant artist, and her husband, who’s also a brilliant artist, except he’s known nationwide for his talent. They receive a project to design and create a Book of Hours (an illustrated book of prayers) for a wealthy landlord far, far away.

But this is not the story of Gemma. The writer never once tells the reader that Gemma is the main character. You either realise it, or you don’t. Either way, you’ll enjoy the book.

As the story begins, we follow Will, a young artist running away from his hometown. He ends up working with the master limner and his wife, Gemma. From there, we watch as Will’s life unfolds—as he works with the couple on their project, how he becomes essential for the book and its owner, and how he blends into the family.

Our introduction to Gemma comes through Will’s eyes. And so we see her as a cold, doubtful woman who clearly hates him from the moment her husband invited him in. He’s shocked when he realises she paints, torn between her knack for translating words into pictures and the unacceptable reality of her being allowed to paint. And yet, between them grows a friendship that’s unlike any other. As highly-gifted artists, they spend a lot of time in each other’s presence, heads bent low, each immersed in their own battle.

Like all good characters, Will also evolves from a typical man who looks down on a woman painter to accepting her skill. But that transition is so artfully done—he doesn’t run into a raging feminist who changes his mind about women doing other than housework. He doesn’t have a flash of understanding about patriarchy that completely changes him overnight. Instead, it’s a gradual change of mind, a progression that’s incomplete even as the story ends. As a skilful limner himself, he admires Gemma’s talent.

For a long time, he believes she’s protected only by his and her husband’s silence. As someone who enjoys realistic characters, it was refreshing to see that Will still had a lot of room to grow. He’s not perfect, and that’s a perfect place to end his story.

Though Gemma herself goes through many changes as the story progresses, her situation largely remains unchanged—quite an unexpected ending for a character of that magnitude. She doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. Only the characters who knew about her passion for the art at the beginning know about it in the end—plus Will, of course. And yet, we see her evolve into a more complete and aware person. She’s another example of a realistic character—no drastic, dramatic incidents to topple her underlying beliefs. Every good change happens gradually. And that’s why this book is such a good read. The author has done one hell of a job, and I’m glad I read it.

Reality

The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, California
The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles, California

With bulging egos
and greedy wars, oversized
is our history.

Appreciation

Australia is famous for many things. One of which is the largest living organism in the world—The Great Barrier Reef—that sprawls across a large part of eastern Australia. And then there’s Ayers Rock or UluruAyers Rock in the north, Port Arthur way down in Tasmania, the Opera House, the Old Melbourne Gaol, and countless other convict houses that framed the history of this great country that remains a wondrous mystery to the rest of the world.

There’re so many cultural and monumental buildings and memories in this country that global history texts celebrate. And yet, there’re also so many iconic elements that go entirely unnoticed—even by Australians themselves. People talk more about the gorgeous wine regions* than about the more noteworthy things they ought to talk about. 

Here’s an example.

I was chatting with some friends, who come from various parts of the country and have travelled and lived much around the world, and I learnt that the world’s oldest living thing is right here in Australia, an unknown fact to most people.

It’s not the Reef. That’s the largest. 

The oldest is a natural phenomenon called stromatolite or stromatolith. My enthusiasm for geology makes up for my beyond pathetic knowledge of the science. Stromatolites are rock formations. They’re layers of sheet-like sediments of silt, limestone, and a single-celled microbe called cyanobacteria. The word’s root comes from Greek and translates to “stratum” or more loosely to “stony cushion.” 

Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia - Photo source: Wikipedia
Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia.

Stromatolites are common and occur in many places. However, in Western Australia’s North Pole (apparently, WA has a North Pole of its own. Who knew?), you’ll find stromatolites as old as 3.5 billion years. They’re officially the oldest in the record.

The most extensive collection of stromatolites is in a Hamlin Pool in Shark Bay, also in Western Australia. These are about 4500 years old. And you can just as easily walk up to them as you would to a tree in your back garden.

We seldom appreciate the greatness within our reach. As in a game of hide and seek, we seek the special all around us, sometimes even going far off in the wrong direction, only to have equally uninformed guides misguiding us under the false impression of finding the right spot. And we think we’ve found it too—until we see it for real, and realise, that it’s been sitting in silence right under our noses.


*Don’t get me wrong—Australia is home to some of the world’s best wine regions. And it’s critical to showcase them too. I only call for a more balanced distribution of paparazzi.


Photo source: Wikipedia. By Paul Harrison.