by Vanitha Sankaran
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The heroine of Watermark is Auda, a girl born strangely pale, with "too-white flesh and watery eyes, and ... blood-specked white fuzz" for hair. After her mother dies when she is born, she grows up with her father, a paper-maker in fourteenth-century Narbonne, France. Narbonne was once home to troubadours and remains the home of mysterious Cathar heretics, but even in this relative haven, it is dangerous to be different. Besides her odd coloring, which makes some people think she must be a witch, Auda is mute. But she is close to her father, who has taught her to read, and she joys in his paper-making work.
When Auda discovers a tool for producing a watermark, a device used by the finest Italian paper-makers to distinguish their products, she makes up her mind to find one as a gift for her father. But the inquisition has begun looking for heretics in a nearby town, and Narbonne is not far behind. Auda's well-meant quest eventually plunges her family into terrible danger.
Paper, a cheaper substitute for the parchment made from animal skins, was not yet the important product it would become in Europe after the invention of the printing press. It was already well-known, though, having been produced in Spain as early as the eleventh century and undergone refinements in Italy. Watermark lovingly portrays the paper-making process and features several fourteenth-century uses for paper. By the time readers turn the novel's last page, they may feel as though they have become expert paper-makers themselves.
Auda makes a sweet young heroine, inspired to self-confidence and courage by her discovery of the Cathar belief, "Women are no lesser than men, men no more than women." Her emotions and ideas tend to be uncomplicated and, from a modern perspective if not the perspective of her time, fairly conventional. Except for the final dramatic clash with the inquisition, foreshadowed through most of the story, the conflict tends to be understated, so some readers may find Watermark too slow-moving for their taste. (2010; 330 pages, including an author's note separating history from fiction, a historical chronology and a bibliography of historical sources)
More about Watermark from Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Other novels related to the Cathars and the troubadours:
The Treasure of Montségur by Sophy Burnham (2002), about a woman given the responsibility of protecting a Cathar treasure during the inquisition against the Cathars. More info
The Good Men by Charmaine Craig (2002), a literary novel about a fourteenth-century woman who becomes involved with the Cathars.
A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay (1992), a fantasy novel set in an imaginary world inspired by the troubadour culture of southern France during the Middle Ages. More info
Nonfiction about medieval Narbonne and the history of paper:
Medieval Narbonne: A City at the Heart of the Troubadour World by Jacqueline Caille (2005). More info
Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours by Fredric L. Cheyette (2001). More info
Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft by Dard Hunter (1943). More info
"A Brief History of Paper" at the St. Louis Community College website
Step-by-step guide to making paper at How-to-Make-Paper.com
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