Book of Colours

Written by Robyn Cadwallader
Review by Elizabeth Jane Corbett

In the year 1320, in anticipation of a major family inheritance, Lady Mathilda commissions a book of hours: an exquisite book, to raise the prestige of her husband’s name. She asks the distinguished London limner, John Dancaster, to complete the work. For Dancaster, the commission is the opportunity of a lifetime. He employs Will Asshe, a limner newly arrived from Cambridge, to help with the intricate hand-painted pages. But Will has secrets, as do Dancaster and his wife, Gemma—secrets that must be kept from the London guild master, Southflete. But as war ravages the countryside, Mathilda loses her inheritance, and the limners’ secrets come bubbling to the surface: secrets that will find their way onto the manuscript’s pages, affecting all whose lives are linked by its delicate threads of colour.

Having enjoyed The Anchoress, I couldn’t wait to read Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours. In terms of story, the two works have little in common, one being set almost entirely in solitude, the other in the hurly burly of a nation at war. The only tenuous link between the two is memories of a burned prayer book. Told from the viewpoints of Lady Mathilda, Will and Gemma, Book of Colours gives insight into the work of a master limner, the hidden work of women, and the way in which ordinary people were affected by the ravages of war and famine. Running throughout, like the golden illuminations of a manuscript, the book explores faith and creativity, guilt, loss and the possibility of new beginnings.

Book of Colours is an exquisite book, full of poignant characters and evocative prose. From the icy Cambridge road, to a hidden manor house in the Welsh March, and the bustling streets of London, Cadwallader’s medieval world is vividly created. A must for all who love literary historical fiction.